Commissioners consider letter asking Gov. Kate Brown to rethink restrictions on businesses

PMG PHOTO: SAM STITES - Volunteers prepare the COVID-19 vaccine to be adminstered at a drive-thru clinic set up at the Clackamas Town Center on March 26.Clackamas County has officially been pushed backward into the high-risk category for COVID-19 transmission as infection rates spiked to 140.1 cases per 100,000 population. FILE PHOTO - Clackamas County

According to a release from Gov. Kate Brown's office Tuesday, April 8, the county will not receive a two-week warning period and will move directly into high risk.

Restrictions on businesses at the high-risk level will resume in Clackamas County effective Friday, April 9, when indoor dining at restaurants and maximum allowable capacity inside gyms will be reduced to 25% from 50%. School reopenings are no longer tied to community COVID-19 levels.

On Tuesday morning, the Clackamas Board of County Commissioners considered a draft letter put together by Nancy Bush, county incident commander and disaster management director, and staff from the county's Public and Government Affairs Division that asks Brown and the OHA to consider easing restrictions on businesses. The draft letter said perhaps the most important metric to stand by is hospital capacity.

PMG PHOTO: SAM STITES - Clackamas County Public Information Officer Kimberly Dinwiddie addresses the media at the drive-thru clinic set up at the Clackamas Town Center on March 26. But Bush told the board that she had discussions with County Public Health Director Philip Mason-Joyner and Public Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present in which both expressed concern over sending a letter that highlights the hospital capacity metric when it could actually be days or weeks from a positive test to hospitalization, and therefore the county shouldn't hang its hat on that data.

According to Bush, Present and Mason-Joyner also expressed concern over the risk of indoor dining and other entertainment establishments as case counts begin to rise once again.

Bush also noted that while the county's Public Health Council did help in writing the draft letter she worked on with PGA, the council also advised against sending a letter at this time.

Commissioner Mark Shull said that he's vehemently against any return to shutdowns and restrictions like the county saw before Feb. 26 when it entered moderate risk.

"I realize that COVID-19 is going to be around like this, possibly for years, but people need to eat, and that means they need to operate their businesses," Shull said. "I am adamant that we must protect the people in this county who make a living and put food on the table based on their business, and I will not participate in anything that's going to ask them to go back to a more restrictive level and further reduce their ability to sustain their business."

Commissioner Martha Schrader said that she can't support sending a letter neither signed off on by the Public Health Council, nor the county's public health officers.

"We may have a surge; we don't really know that yet. It looks like there may be a surge, but I would be very, very cautious about it because you know you can't run a business if you're dead," Schrader said.

The board also considered a version of a letter drafted by Commissioner Sonya Fischer which took less of a hard stance on keeping businesses open at 50% capacity, rather reminding the governor and OHA that there are a variety of negative impacts felt when shutdowns and business restrictions are implemented, particularly after Clackamas County has already seen widespread reopening to almost normal levels of operation.

"We agree that we must prioritize the health and safety of our community. We encourage you to take a holistic approach as we continue to vaccinate more people and manage the increase in cases that are occurring," Fischer's letter states. "A holistic approach includes the detrimental side effects of moving back reopening metrics."

Commissioner Paul Savas said he appreciates the point Fischer is attempting to get across in her letter, but wishes it took a firmer stance on calling out Brown to address the reasons for these spikes in case numbers being seen across the state.

"I just wish your letter had a little more substance, if you will. And on that, not necessarily teeth, per se, but we got to realize that if this outbreak was triggered by the school openings, to some degree, I want to make it perfectly clear," Savas said. "I'm not suggesting that that was an error, but the education and the guidance from parents and school teachers and everyone involved into asking them or trying to enforce masking up to a greater degree. Prevention, that's the message."

The board agreed to have county staff redraft the letter incorporating parts of both the letter drafted by Bush and PGA staff, as well as pieces of Fischer's letter to bring back to the board on Thursday, April 8, for their consideration. PHOTO COURTESY: KOIN 6 NEWS - Charles Maes of Casa de Tamales in Milwaukie spoke out against new restrictions on business owners in Clackamas County.

Savas expressed his concerns for Clackamas County businesses on TV news on April 7, as KOIN 6 News also interviewed business owners protesting the new restrictions.

Business was just starting to pick up at Casa de Tamales in downtown Milwaukie, according to the restaurant owner Charles Maes.

"I don't know how much longer many of us can continue with this," Maes told KOIN 6. "Right at the present time I can seat about 25 people. Once it goes down I'm going to only be able to fit about 12 people. So that's going to make a big difference."

This story has been updated from its original version online to indicate that school reopenings are no longer tied to community COVID-19 levels, as of Brown's executive order in December. We apologize for the error.

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