Washington County approved to enter Phase 1 of reopening
Gov. Kate Brown has approved Washington County's plan to enter Phase 1 of reopening, allowing restaurants, gyms, salons and other personal service providers to reopen while following certain safety procedures starting Monday, June 1.
Brown approved the plan on Thursday, May 28, making Washington County the second of the state's three most populous counties to receive Brown's approval after Clackamas County received the green light May 22.
Under state guidelines, gatherings of up to 25 people will be allowed for recreational, social, cultural, civic or faith events as long as physical distancing requirements are met. Shopping centers such as Washington Square Mall will be allowed to reopen as long as businesses follow guidelines for retailers.
"Now that we have been approved to enter Phase I on Monday, June 1, each of us has an obligation – to ourselves and to each other – to play by the rules and keep the virus on the decline," said Kathryn Harrington, chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, in a statement Thursday.
Brown's decision leaves Multnomah County the last of the Portland metro area's counties to begin conditional reopening. On May 27, Deborah Kafoury, chair of the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners, said the county will target June 12 as its reopening date.
The same day, Oregon Health Authority announced an outbreak of COVID-19 tied to multiple locations of Townsend Farms, which operates in Multnomah and Washington counties.
The outbreak has affected 48 of about 350 seasonal farmworkers who arrived in the Portland metro area May 23 and 24 to harvest fruit from Townsend-owned sites in Fairview and Cornelius, health officials said Thursday.
"The individuals are believed to have been exposed to the virus prior to coming to Oregon," health officials said.
Washington and Multnomah counties, the OHA and the Oregon Department of Agriculture are working with the company to contain the outbreak and implement safety measures, health officials said.
"I want to assure you this will not affect our reopening," said Marni Kuyl, director of Washington County Health and Human Services, at a press conference Thursday announcing the reopening.
Kuyl said the county tested more than 220 workers at the farm in partnership with the Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Clinic earlier this week and confirmed seven positive tests within the county. Test samples from additional employees are pending.
She said it is "alarming but not surprising" that the county's Latinx community has been disproportionately affected by COVID-19. About half of the county's 700 positive cases have been in the Latinx community.
The county has been working with health care providers to bolster seasonal workers' access to testing and care, Kuyl added.
"Many in our Latinx community are being exposed at work and then bringing home the virus to their families," she said. "These are essential workers. They're the workers who are picking and processing the food that we eat."
According to the governor's dashboard showing which reopening criteria counties have met, Washington County has met all of the criteria. To enter Phase 1, counties must have a declining prevalence of COVID-19 cases during a 14-day period, meet requirements for testing, conduct sufficient contact tracing of cases, be able to isolate cases, and provide adequate hospital care to patients and personal protective equipment for first responders.
Although the state dashboard Thursday showed Washington County met the prerequisite to hire the required 90 staff to do contact tracing, the county's dashboard still shows the prerequisite as "in process."
When the county announced May 22 it had submitted its reopening plan for state review, officials said the county had a plan to hire and train 42 new surge staff for contact tracing by June 1.
"This will allow us to meet the state's requirement to reach 95 percent of (cases') close contacts within 24 hours as we enter Phase I," the county said in a statement. "After June 1, the county will continue to hire additional staff to meet the state's requirement of having 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people. This will include 90 staff doing the work of contact tracing, and another 30-40 people supporting this work. At least 30% of the new staff will be bilingual/bicultural."
In a letter submitted with the county's reopening plan, Stephen Rhodes, interim county administrator, said the OHA wouldn't require the county to have all 90 contact tracers in place before entering Phase 1 as long as the county can reach 95% of cases' close contacts within 24 hours.
Business owners and elected officials in Washington County's cities have been calling on county officials to reopen for weeks, saying residents are suffering from closures and other restrictions due to the coronavirus.
Some elected leaders in cities criticized the county for not hiring more contact tracers earlier because the prerequisite was unmet while other counties across the state applied to enter Phase 1.
In an interview following the governor's announcement Thursday, Forest Grove Mayor Pete Truax said he was pleased the county will begin reopening soon.
He also urged business owners planning to reopen to go beyond required safety measures to further protect people. While employees and customers are not required to wear facial coverings in businesses, Truax said people should.
"I can't overemphasize that enough," Truax said. "It just seems you would want to do that, not only to protect yourself but to protect the people that you are around."
People wishing to report a violation of health and safety procedures at any business in the county can call 503-846-8390 or find reporting guidelines on the county's website.
Editor's note: This story has been updated to include comments from county officials during a Thursday press conference.
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