Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday announced the most sweeping and restrictive COVID-19 safety measures in more than two months — saying she has no choice but to catapult 15 of 36 Oregon counties into an “extreme risk” designation to slow a surge in new cases that’s accelerating faster than in any other state nationwide.
The 15 counties — which include a large swath of the Portland area but not Washington County – on Friday must shut down indoor dining in restaurants and bars and severely curtail the number of patrons to no more than six in gyms, movie theaters, bowling alleys and indoor swimming pools. Indoor visits at long-term care facilities will also be prohibited except under certain circumstances. (The full list of restrictions is available here.)
The affected counties stretch across the state, encompassing parts of eastern, central and southern Oregon, as well as much of the populous Willamette Valley. The full list includes: Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk and Wasco counties.
The more restrictive measures immediately prompted pushback from many COVID-weary residents who believe the governor has not only dealt a blow to their mental health but livelihoods and the economy.
The Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association lambasted the governor stating that she has “punished” struggling restaurants and bars “yet again.” The association’s president, Jason Brandt, said he believes that COVID-fatigued Oregonians will continue to gather socially in less-controlled and less-safe environments than in eating-and-drinking establishments.
“I firmly believe the end result is going to be more private gatherings and more transmission, not less,” Brandt said.
But Brown’s move also drew praise from Oregonians who say cases have been ballooning for more than a month and government intervention is necessary to stop them from further spiraling out of control. While new infections have declined 20% nationwide in the past two weeks, they’ve grown 54% in Oregon.
Oregon also has seen a dramatic spike in hospitalizations even though those numbers are holding relatively steady nationally. Hospitalizations trail cases, meaning Oregon has yet to see its peak of people seeking medical care – although that level is expected to be far lower than the high from last fall.
“If we don’t act now, doctors, nurses, hospitals, and other health care providers in Oregon will be stretched to their limits treating severe cases of COVID-19,” Brown said in a statement. “Today’s announcement will save lives and help stop COVID-19 hospitalizations from spiking even higher.”
The renewed restrictions announced by Brown are far less sweeping than the “freeze” she implemented last November, when she closed gyms and mandated take-out only services at restaurants as average cases and active hospitalizations were 13% to 15% higher than today’s levels.
The tiered levels she introduced in December sent 29 of the 36 counties into extreme risk a few weeks later, but also seemingly began having a dramatic impact. Local case counts improved, leaving only two counties under the strictest restrictions by March 12.
The 15 counties now labeled at extreme risk are the most since Feb. 11.
Many of the 15 counties announced Tuesday already would have shifted to extreme risk earlier this month, but Brown on April 6 made it tougher for that to happen in a clear bid to keep businesses open. She
added new hurdles before mandating the strictest restrictions, requiring statewide hospitalizations first reach 300 or more patients and the seven-day average of patients must increase by at least 15%.
Hospitalizations soared past 300 Monday and hit 328 Tuesday, up 27% in the past week.
Becky Hultberg, president of the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems, said she is “confident” hospitals can manage the current surge and hospitals will continue non-urgent procedures. But Hultberg also said the association supports the governor “making tough choices to control the virus.”
“We can’t let our guard down now,” Hultberg said in a written statement.
In a written statement Tuesday, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler said he was concerned about the state’s increasing infections and encouraged the public to support local employers by ordering online, getting delivery or using curbside pickup. He urged customers to seek out local businesses through ShopSmallPDX.com.
“The key to reopening our city is ending the pandemic,” Wheeler said.
Counties will be in extreme risk for a “maximum” of three weeks, according to the governor’s office. If cases, positivity rates and hospitalizations continue to rise after that, the Oregon Health Authority will “evaluate why and make recommendations” to the governor about how to proceed.
The governor’s office said counties could shift to a lower risk level and fewer restrictions after just one week if cases drop or statewide hospitalizations dip below 300 or don’t continue to accelerate at 15% or more each week.
Last week, Oregon Health Authority officials said they believe the more contagious B.1.1.7 variant, first detected in the United Kingdom, is now the dominant strain in Oregon, making up a majority of cases. Officials say that, as well as human behavior, has been leading to Oregon’s soaring rates.
Scientists worry that as the virus continues to spread, it will continue to mutate into forms that are more resistant to current vaccines as well as more deadly. Some studies have found the B.1.1.7 has already achieved a bit of both.
“With new COVID-19 variants widespread in so many of our communities, it will take all of us working together to bring this back under control,” Brown said in her statement.
Since last fall, Oregon Health Authority leaders have repeatedly said they believe the coronavirus can more easily spread in gyms as people breathe heavily and sweat, dampening their masks.
Officials also say dining indoors is problematic because people take off their masks to eat and drink. The health authority points to a CDC report from March that found new COVID-19 infections began rising about six weeks after states allowed on-site dining — indoors or out. Deaths climbed about two months later.
The health authority says it’s aware of 258 restaurant and bar outbreaks in Oregon as of early April, which comprises 4% of total outbreaks. Contact tracers have not regularly been asking sickened Oregonians, however, if they’ve recently patronized bars and restaurants or the names of those locations.
Even so, Brandt, from the Restaurant & Lodging Association, said he believes Oregon would have reported super-spreader events at restaurants or bars if they truly were a problem. But to date, he said there have been none.
“We think it’s a pretty incredible achievement,” Brandt said of the 4% of outbreak cases tied to restaurants and bars. “Are the restrictions applied to Oregon’s hospitality industry proportional? … We certainly don’t believe so.”
Brown said she is working with legislators to push for the passage of a $20 million “emergency relief package” to help businesses in extreme-risk counties with commercial rent relief.
“The vast majority of Oregon businesses have followed our health and safety guidance to protect Oregonians from COVID-19, even though doing so has come with an economic cost,” Brown said in her statement. “This emergency aid will help businesses in Extreme Risk counties.”
Another measure Brown is taking: Loosening restrictions for bars, restaurants and “other sectors” that operate outdoors by lifting a 50-person outdoor limit to 100 people, with physical distancing. That’s in recognition that the coronavirus is much less likely to spread outdoors compared to indoors.
Most of the 15 counties facing renewed restrictions for extreme risk made the list because of high case spread per capita.
The cutoff for “large” counties, of more than 30,000 residents, is more than 200 new infections per 100,000 residents during a recent two-week period that ended Saturday. Counties classified as “medium” or “small” make the list based on overall new cases of 60 or more or positivity rates over 10%, according to the health authority’s website.
Klamath County in southern Oregon led large counties, posting a rate of about 787 cases per 100,000 residents in the past two weeks, while Deschutes County in central Oregon posted a rate of nearly 467 cases.
In the metro area, Clackamas County recorded nearly 245 cases per 100,000 residents while Multnomah County saw 221.
Washington County had 192 cases per 100,000 residents, meaning it will remain at “high risk” and its restaurants and bars will remain open indoors and avoid falling under the more restrictive measures, for now.
The governor said despite this most recent surge, she believes the virus’ spread can be reversed in weeks and the economy can start to fully reopen by the end of June. Modeling by Oregon Health & Science University indicates cases could peak May 4, with hospitalizations following May 19.
“The fastest way to lift health and safety restrictions is for Oregonians to get vaccinated as quickly as possible and follow the safety measures we know stop this virus from spreading,” Brown said.
“But,” she added, “we will only get there if enough Oregonians get vaccinated. There are appointments available right now all across the state.”
— Aimee Green; [email protected]; @o_aimee