Clackamas County pushes back on COVID-19 risk level
Executive directors of four separate chambers of commerce representing communities across Clackamas County and thousands of businesses testified in front of the Clackamas Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, April 8, expressing their frustration with Gov. Kate Brown's decision to skip the two-week warning period and order businesses straight back to the "high risk" category for COVID-19 transmission.
Laura Edmonds, Shatrine Krake, Kyle Lang and Victoria Meinig — executive directors of the North Clackamas, West Linn, Canby and Oregon City chambers of commerce, respectively — all showed up Thursday evening to voice concern over the swiftness with which the state decided to reverse the county's COVID-19 risk level and the impact it will have on businesses that have already been harmed by a year's worth of shutdowns.
"We are asking for your help to do the following: Ask the governor why we were not actually granted the full two-week cautionary period as was promised by her so that the businesses could ready themselves to reduce and adjust their business offerings and provide more time for their employees to prepare for another layoff," Edmonds said. "Restaurants are a great example. Most had already spent $10,000 to $20,000 for the next week's food. Half of that will go to waste. They're just throwing money away that they don't have."
According to Edmonds, it would take a direct allocation of nearly $45,000 to every business in the county to make them whole for the losses they've felt up to this point and to get through the next two weeks of what she described as basically being a shutdown.
The discussion was sparked by a conversation held by county commissioners on Thursday over a draft letter to Brown asking the governor to reconsider forcing the capacity of Clackamas County businesses down to 25%. The board took up the idea of sending a letter at its meeting Tuesday morning, but decided to workshop their message with help from Disaster Management Director Nancy Bush and staff from the county's Public and Government Affairs Division. Initially, the board was held off on sending a draft of the letter due to the fact the county's own Public Health Council didn't agree with the decision to send a letter to the governor asking her to reconsider the county's risk level.
Directors of the four chambers were joined by several Clackamas County residents who also gave impassioned testimony calling on the board to stand up to the governor and push back on business restrictions.
Following public testimony, the board briefly discussed their consternation over the county not receiving a warning period, and unanimously approved the third version of the draft letter to be sent to Brown as soon as possible.
County Chair Tootie Smith — who is out of the office this week but joined Thursday evening by phone — said she didn't have time to read the draft letter but approved of the board's message as a whole. She also said she was reserving the right to send her own letter directly to Borwn.
Below is the full text of the letter the Clackamas Board of County Commissioners approved sending to Gov. Brown Thursday, April 8.
Dear Governor Brown:
Oregonians have sacrificed and lost much over the past year as they have fought through the COVID-19 pandemic. We are proud of our Clackamas County residents and businesses who have complied with your orders and who take protective measures every day, such as masking up and changing business operations.
It brings us great delight to see children back at school and the hum of school buses traveling down our streets. Thank you for allowing a return to in-person instruction and activities. We know this will help the mental health of our youth. This disease has greatly harmed our children and it is time for us to help them recover and thrive.
Our businesses have been safely operating in Moderate Risk since Feb. 26, while continuing to abide by OHA's guidelines. They have continued to make every effort to work in a way that will help slow the spread of the virus, often at a cost to them. We were frustrated to learn on Tuesday that, by tomorrow, Clackamas County businesses will be mandated to cut back on capacity as we are moved to the High Risk category. Our understanding was that we would receive a two week caution period before having our risk category changed. Three days' notice to our businesses to prepare to cut capacity does not afford them the time necessary to plan for inventory reduction, staffing changes, and every day operation modifications. As an example, many of our restaurants have spent $10,000-$20,000 in purchasing supplies and retraining and hiring employees that will be lost by this sudden change.
We know that reopening schools to in-person instruction, coupled with businesses bringing employees and customers back, results in COVID-19 cases rising. This is not new information and it is not surprising.
However, reopening then closing businesses, and moving kids from hybrid in-person to only virtual learning, would cause harm in addition to rising COVID-19 cases. The economic hardships will be felt by our communities for years.
We believe there is an opportunity to consider other factors when determining community risk level.
For example, in Clackamas County, we have identified many of our positive COVID-19 cases are generally contained to outbreaks connected to school activities outside of in-person instruction, such as small social gatherings. We have also found that very few are related to workplaces. Holding back the entire community and demanding that hundreds of businesses reduce capacity, and place more people back in the unemployment line, is not sustainable and causes additional harm.
We understand that hospital capacity was a factor in your recent decision to move us back to High Risk, but we must point out that our hospital capacity remains stable in the region. We fully understand the need to keep cases low to ensure we have enough hospital capacity, ICU beds and ventilators. Although cases are going up, as expected, we have successfully maintained capacity and been able to provide the needed services for our most severe cases. Hospital capacity cannot be understated. Please consider a region's hospital capacity and outbreak sources before deciding to move a county into a higher risk level. Reducing business capacity due to case counts alone, when other public health metrics should be considered, is another setback to our entire community.
As more and more have access and receive the vaccine every day, we ask that the risk levels determined by the state include other factors. Please consider elements beyond how many cases per 100,000 people. For example, if the cases are contained to outbreaks, an entire community should not be punished. Outbreaks were once a metric for reopening Oregon in the past and can be again.
We are also concerned about the accelerated timeline for vaccine eligibility that does not match available vaccine supplies. We want to continue to uplift the need for vaccine allocations to be redistributed to the most populated areas in the state, including Clackamas County, that are still behind in providing access to community members that have been eligible for weeks and frustrated, especially our local frontline workers and small businesses.
Our residents have been through much. Three declared disasters in 11 months. While our communities are resilient, many businesses and their employees are on precipice of collapse. We must also consider the impact to our lower socioeconomic groups. This is about economic justice for people. Please allow us the two week caution period and focus the efforts of education and enforcement on the populations where the spikes are occurring.
Clackamas County is committed to work collaboratively with the State to fight the spread of the virus. We ask you to take our feedback and recommendations to heart. We work closest with our most affected communities and can provide insight in what is working and what is not. We are available to further discuss these considerations further.
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