Mayors, other elected officials and business leaders from around the state hold an online press conferenc to talk about progress, needs during COVID-19 crisis

PMG FILE PHOTO - Hundreds of businesses in the region are boarded up.With calls growing to reopen the Oregon economy, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler organized an online press conference Tuesday with other locally elected officials and business leaders in the state about their response to the COVID-19 crisis.

They all admitted the need caused by the economic slowdown is far greater than the help they have been able to provide so far, and they urged the state and federal governments to increase assistance to local governments, small businesses and the unemployed.

"These are anxious times for a lot of people," said Wheeler, who nevertheless called Oregon's response to the crisis a model for other states. Among other things, he noted that Portland and other cities quickly approved eviction moratoriums that Oregon Gov. Kate Brown soon included in her emergency response orders.

Wheeler said Portland has received $114 million in federal assistance and is waiting for guidance on how the funds can be spent. He wants to prioritize assistance to low-income households and small businesses. Portland has already given more than $1 million in grants to small businesses and is processing another $2 million in loan applications. That is just a tiny fraction of the overall need, however, Wheeler admitted.

In addition to Wheeler, elected officials in the metropolitan area included Metro President Lynn Peterson, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis, Beaverton Mayor Denny Doyle, and Hillsboro Mayor Steve Callaway.

Peterson said Metro, which has been forced to lay off approximately 40% of its staff because of declining tourism- and visitor-related revenues, is working with Great Portland Inc. on an economic recovery program. GPI is an economic advocacy organization that represents the seven-county Portland-Vancouver region.

Kafoury said the county is providing essential safety net services for the most vulnerable residents, including the homeless. She said the crisis has exposed existing inequities in the region, with people of color being laid off and contracting COVID-19 at a disproportionate rate. Kafoury said any recover plan must address such inequities.

"We can't go back to normal because normal wasn't fair," said Kafoury.

Gresham, Beaverton and Hillsboro do not qualify for any direct federal assistance under the stimulus packages that have been passed to date. Bemis, Doyle and Callaway said their cities have nevertheless provided millions of dollars of assistance to small businesses and hope to do even more in the future.

Also speaking were representatives of Chambers of Commerce in various parts of the state, including several representing minority business owners. All of them praised the assistance that has been available so far, but said much more is urgently needed.

"This is an extinction-level event," said James Parker, president of the Oregon Native American Chamber.

The April 21 press conference was held as calls to restart Oregon's economy are growing. Republican state legislators and elected leaders in counties with no or few COVID-19 cases want Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to lift her prohibition against gatherings in them. Hundred of protesters held a drive-by rally at the State Capitol to demand that Brown lift her stay-at-home order and allow businesses to reopen on Friday, April 17. Another protest is scheduled for Saturday, May 2.

"Think about the people who have businesses and now have no way of having an income," said demonstrator Ray Ogden from Salem.

KOIN 6 News is a news partner of the Portland Tribune and contributed to this story.

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