2021 began with Washington County still mired in the "two-week pause" that ended up stretching well into February.
It was a dismal time for many locally owned businesses. Restaurants operated with limited capacity, with indoor dining prohibited. Some businesses, like the Sherwood Ice Arena, had to close altogether.
On Feb. 9, Gov. Kate Brown announced that with COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations easing after last winter's surge, Washington County had moved out of the "extreme risk" category. That meant a loosening of restrictions that allowed many businesses to open their doors again or expand capacity.
Although relieved, the frustration of many local business owners was palpable — and not very subtle.
Cooper Mountain Ale Works welcomed back customers with a special new ale: "Kate's Nutty Shutdown Brown." The Sherwood Ice Arena sardonically noted that it planned to remain open "unless the county backtracks and forces us to close again."
But ever since it was discovered in Wuhan, China, in late 2019 — more than two years ago now — COVID-19 continues to follow a pattern of spikes and lulls.
In May, Washington County narrowly dodged being returned to the "extreme risk" restrictions, when an obscure statewide metric tracking the increase in "patient bed-days" at Oregon hospitals fell just a 10th of a percentage point short of requiring much of the state to go back under the most restrictive COVID-19 health and safety protocols.
The yo-yo effect continued into the summer. Brown lifted the state's indoor mask mandate at the end of June, only to reinstate it in mid-August as the delta variant — to that point, the most transmissible strain of the virus yet detected — fueled a surge that saw case counts, hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 rise to record levels by September.
Many businesses and public entities, including the Washington County government, had planned on requiring workers to report to the office beginning this fall. Delta put those plans on hold — in some cases, indefinitely.
Beaverton and Tigard, among others, also instituted stricter mask requirements for city workers. Experts say N95, KN95 and other respirator-style masks are much more effective than cloth masks at preventing viral transmission.
"This is an opportunity to further health and safety within our communities and avoid unnecessary closures as we continue to stress access and availability of vaccinations," said Jen Haruyama, Beaverton's city manager.
Indeed, widespread access to free vaccinations against COVID-19 — which were only available to a select few at the start of 2021 — as well as a better understanding of the "invisible enemy," has made it more feasible for Oregon to stay open even as the delta variant, and now the even more contagious omicron variant, have taken the state by storm.
The Brown administration and many businesses — including Intel Corp., Washington County's largest private employer — have required workers to get vaccinated. The vaccine mandate is particularly wide-reaching for public employees, including healthcare workers, emergency responders and educators.
This month, Intel notified employees that anyone without proof of vaccination or a corporate-approved exemption by April 2022 will be placed on unpaid leave.
Despite the mandates — or perhaps because of them — the Brown administration has resisted restoring the strictures of this past winter and spring. To a large extent, businesses now enjoy the freedom to set their own policies and procedures, and people can choose whether and how to gather for holiday get-togethers, after-school clubs and beyond. Many beloved traditions, like the Washington County Fair, returned after a year of hiatus. Not only did the Hillsboro Hops, our local minor league baseball team, play a nearly complete season after a 2020 washout, but they hosted the Vancouver Canadians from Canada all summer as well.
While Oregonians must continue to mask up in public places, as recommended by virtually all public health experts while community transmission is high, we are coming up on one year since Salem forced businesses in Washington County to temporarily close rather than provide their core services. As frustrating as it is to live with the virus in our communities, the state's shift in approach has undoubtedly been welcome news for restaurants, bars, fitness centers, movie theaters and more.
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