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As our state cautiously reopens and braces for more new cases, workers and businesses are still smarting.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Pizzario in downtown Hillsboro was able to stay open for take-out and delivery during the shutdown. It's one of many businesses that is approaching Phase 1 of reopening with caution.It hasn't been at front of mind lately, but there's still a pandemic on.

While protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at the hands of police officers in Minnesota and Kentucky have seized headlines and mobilized tens of thousands in Oregon alone, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to rise. Sometime next week, it will likely eclipse the U.S. death toll in World War I, 116,516 — the third-highest of all military conflicts in U.S. history, behind only the Civil War and World War II.

Moreover, there's a mishmash of data as Oregon tentatively begins to reopen, and not all of it is good.

For the first time, the Oregon Health Authority reported more than 100 new cases of COVID-19 on Saturday. Then it reported more than 100 more on Sunday. Then Monday.

State officials say much of the increase can be attributed to improved testing and tracing, as well as localized outbreaks at individual employers — including some in Washington County, such as Chaucer Foods in Forest Grove.

Read our story on the COVID-19 outbreak at Chaucer Foods, published June 8, 2020.

It's true that in some states — including New York and New Jersey, which formed the nucleus of the COVID-19 explosion in North America two and a half months ago — case numbers and deaths are finally, mercifully declining. It's also true that we have a better idea today about how the coronavirus spreads and attacks the body than we did in the first few weeks of the outbreak, and many more Americans are better equipped to reduce their risk of being infected or transmitting the virus, thanks to widespread adoption of face masks, adherence to social distancing guidelines, and new policies for workers and customers at businesses that have been able to reopen.

Still, we must proceed with caution. Some counties are already accelerating into Phase 2 of reopening, which allows larger gatherings and gives the green light for people to return to movie theaters, spas, bowling alleys, aquatic centers and churches. While there are specific guidelines for each type of business and venue intended to reduce the risk of the coronavirus spreading, state officials admit that allowing more and more places to reopen and people to gather in larger and larger groups will, almost certainly, lead to more cases of COVID-19.

Street protests provide fertile ground for the virus as well. Many demonstrators have worn masks, and the vast majority of protests have been outdoor events, both of which are thought to sharply reduce the risk of viral transmission. But whenever people are gathering in close proximity, breathing the same air, the risk is present. It may be increased, perhaps by a lot, by the use of tear gas, smoke canisters, pepper balls and other so-called "crowd control munitions" that police have deployed — often indiscriminately, and sometimes with little provocation — and which can cause uncontrollable bouts of coughing and retching.

Only time will tell whether the worst of the pandemic really is behind us, or whether there will be a second wave, or whether we never really even fully suppressed the first wave and it's still happening despite our efforts.

Meanwhile, local businesses are stuck in a quandary.

Many business owners are thrilled to welcome back customers and clients. But they have also had to implement social distancing measures, sometimes at considerable cost, many of which will limit their revenue. Restaurants can't fill every table even during the lunch rush, because they need to keep groups of people at appropriate distances. Cinemas won't be able to fill theater rooms to capacity, or even near capacity. Some grocery stores are still asking customers to line up outside, determined to enforce maximum occupancy policies. Many businesses are seeing "slow starts" as customers remain wary of spending too much time in public, especially in enclosed indoor spaces.

And multiple factors conspire against workers who have been laid off or had their hours cut. For businesses that operate on slim profit margins and with limited cashflow, months of bringing in little to no revenue has left them unable to hire back workers or add back hours right away. Uncertainty over whether a COVID-19 resurgence will force parts or all of Oregon back into lockdown has discouraged others from ramping up their operations. Some employers are leaning on Oregon's Work Share program, which helps to make up lost pay for workers who have been furloughed or had their hours reduced.

Managing the public health impacts of the coronavirus is critical. But we're also gratified to see Washington County setting up business recovery centers to support the county's entrepreneurs and workers as the "economic engine of Oregon" sputters back to life.

Read our June 9, 2020, story on Washington County's business recovery centers.

As COVID-19 has hit Oregon's communities of color particularly hard, we're also glad to see that Forest Grove-based Adelante Mujeres is involved with these business recovery centers. The Latino business community is a vital part of Washington County's economy and cultural landscape, and it should not fall through the cracks just because many of those businesses' customers have less buying power than the median county resident, or because their owners speak Spanish as their first language.

We don't know what lies ahead in our fight against COVID-19, although we can be assured that it won't be finished until there is an effective and mass-deployed vaccine, hopefully by the end of next year. But we do know that many Oregonians are less economically secure than they were a few short months ago, and that they need all the help they can get.


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