Unmasked crowd occupies Clackamas County meeting room
Clackamas County commissioners' Jan. 13 meeting was abruptly halted and moved online after a large crowd refused to follow state and county COVID-19 safety requirements, proceeding to occupy the county hearing room for several minutes after commissioners and staff evacuated.
Roughly 19 minutes into the 6 p.m. meeting, Chair Tootie Smith made the call to move remaining discussions to a virtual format. Smith gaveled the end of the meeting as members of the crowd are heard saying the word "propaganda" as Commissioner Martha Schrader shared how COVID-19 has recently impacted several of her family members who have experienced mild symptoms after contracting the disease.
"We've been really lucky that it isn't severe, but we just never know how it's going to hit people," Schrader said. "We never know how sick you're going to get with it. So, it's really important to be careful."
Schrader's comments were cut short as Smith banged her gavel to end the meeting.
A video recording of what occurred after Smith moved the meeting online is currently available on the Instagram page for Free Oregon, a nonpartisan campaign "dedicated to restoring and protecting the civil rights" of Oregonians amid federal COVID-19 responses such as mask-wearing, per its website.
In the roughly 27-minute video, which appears to have been live streamed by a Free Oregon representative in attendance at the meeting, the packed crowd of mostly unmasked community members are seen occupying the county hearing room to hold their own meeting after commissioners and staff exited the room to continue operations virtually.
Among topics of discussion by the remaining occupiers were the urging of "mass noncompliance" towards COVID-19 safety mandates, disputing Center for Disease Control and Prevention data and recommendations, and calling the 2020 presidential election "fraudulent," despite ample evidence to the contrary.
Smith opened the meeting by declaring to the packed crowd of community members that "everybody in this room will wear a mask," adding that she would cancel the meeting if one person refused to comply.
"...This is the rules. If you don't like it, you will be escorted out, and/or I will cancel this meeting and we will not have it in person," Smith said. "Now, if one person is going to be in defiance of the mask rule and cancel it for everybody, then so be it. We will go virtually, and all testimony and all of our business will be diverted."
A county spokesperson confirmed to Pamplin Media Group that several members of the crowd were in violation of Oregon's statewide requirement to wear masks indoors.
"During last night's proceedings, several attending members of the public were in violation of Oregon Administrative Rule 333-019-1025 (requiring masks in indoor spaces) and also county policies," according to Dylan Blaylock, the county's community relations specialist, by email Friday morning.
"As the video shows, attendees were provided notice by Chair Smith that she would close the meeting to the public if all attendees did not comply with the mask requirements," Blaylock continued.
Blaylock said, "several attendees became disruptive during the proceedings and failed to follow state and county requirements," adding that the board reconvened virtually after a short recess and the meeting resumed via Zoom.
He added that the county has yet to confirm any further information regarding the incident.
The live stream of the evening's events, which remains posted to the @freeoregon Instagram account as of 7 p.m. Friday evening, opens with the filmer, who appears to be Free Oregon's Chief Political Officer Sonja Feintech, describing the moments following the in-person meeting's abrupt stoppage as an attendee can be heard in the background declaring: "Let's hold the meeting anyway."
The woman who appears to be Feintech records herself asking two individuals, who identify themselves as "facilities management" staff, for the building where she can find Smith so she can "talk to" her about the decision to end the meeting.
Roughly a minute later, a pair of county staff members re-enter the room briefly and turn off the live feed of the virtual meeting that remained playing on TV screens in the hearing room, eliciting cheers from the crowd, before staff leaves through a back door.
Among those who stuck around to give public testimony were self-identifying members of a possible political group called "Take Back America," who had members and leadership in attendance and called upon non-members in attendance to join their cause, which included a call to unseat Smith from her position as chair.
"We are uniting...and our first order of business, we didn't have it tonight before we came in here, but intent is to get rid of Tootie Smith," a member of the group said.
A Happy Valley resident in attendance criticized the county board's past refusal to adopt a resolution introduced by Commissioner Mark Shull, likely referring to a resolution draft the commissioner introduced in June 2021 that compared being required to show a COVID-19 vaccine card to Jim Crow laws.
The resident likened the board's veto to an "attack" on efforts to protect county residents and the U.S. Constitution.
"He listens to Clackamas County, so your attack on him was actually an attack on us," the county resident said.
"We understand that currently you are not for freedom, liberty, personal autonomy, you're not for personal choice," she added.
The resident also referred to a similar public hearing involving a packed crowd of unmasked community members in August 2021, "when many of us came," suggesting that some of the same residents were in attendance for both events.
According to Blaylock, the decision to move Thursday's meeting online was informed by emergency protocols instituted by county staff following the August 2021 meeting when hundreds of unmasked community members flocked to the building to give public testimonies regarding Gov. Kate Brown's reinstatement of a federal mask mandate amid statewide surge in COVID-19 cases that week.
Following the incident last August, Blaylock said the county implemented procedures to move an in-person meeting online if attendees would not follow safety rules.
"We also instituted a change to when people are coming into the building, so that outside, folks and attendees have to check in at the lobby of the building, and we provide the masks there," he added.
He said additional security was present at county business meetings from after the August 2021 incident through the end of 2021, but was not brought back for 2022 due to a projected decrease in attendee numbers.
"We did have extra security through the year, but not last night, because at the beginning of the year the termination was made," he said.
Blaylock said that the board will likely revisit its security protocols as a result of Thursday's events.
He added that the number of people in attendance on Thursday appears not to have exceeded the hearing room's maximum capacity of 109 total occupants, due to empty seats visible in recordings of the event.
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