As Clackamas County's Board of Commissioners sustain a brief recess through Labor Day, Sept. 6., its meeting room at the county's Red Soils campus will remain unusually empty — the exact opposite of how it was the evening of Thursday, Aug. 12, when hundreds of unmasked community members flocked to the building to give public testimonies regarding a reinstated mask mandate that would take effect the following day.
In a highly controversial decision locally, Gov. Kate Brown reinstated the mandate effective Friday, Aug. 13, amid a surge in COVID-19 cases statewide that week. Clackamas County saw 593 new reported cases between Aug. 1-7, a 46% increase from the week prior according to the county's public health division.
Despite the rising cases, residents were informed that the reinstated mandate would be the topic of the public hearing that ultimately drew a crowd of roughly 150 unmasked residents. Since then, multiple commissioners have expressed concerns about the safety and security of the building.
Chair Tootie Smith said during a policy meeting Aug. 17 that prior to the controversial hearing, board members and staff met to discuss capacity management. They projected they would have roughly 300 residents come, with roughly half of them allowed to occupy the meeting room while the rest would be permitted to wait outside the building.
"I think our staff performed a marvelously under extremely hard circumstance," Smith said. "They did their jobs as best as I've seen staff do jobs and I'm wholly appreciative to them."
Smith added that staff has put together a plan to manage future large crowds, including possibly meeting in a different location and hiring security to maintain entry and exit, among other measures. Still, she maintained that people have a right to come before the board and express their opinion, and she would not support silencing them.
"I was very unhappy with what occurred on Thursday," said Commissioner Paul Savas, adding that the number of unmasked residents in the room put "everyone in the building" including commissioners themselves at risk.
"We exceeded the capacity of this building, we exceeded the capacity of this room," he continued. "There were people that were frankly, with the COVID pandemic we have, that were in people's space, beyond acceptance … In light of that, I'm assuming by a lot of their testimony that some of these people that were leaning over there, they weren't vaccinated. A lot of them, they said that. So that that gave me pause."
"I have many concerns about the security of the building," said Commissioner Sonya Fischer, who proceeded to read aloud an email sent to the board by the Public Health Council stating its support of the mandate amid rising cases and requesting that the board publicly support the mandate as well.
"The Clackamas County Public Health Advisory Council supports the recent reinstating of the statewide mass mandate and promotion of vaccine of all eligible individuals against COVID-19 to the greatest extent possible," the Council wrote. "Additionally, we ask the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners to publicly support the reinstatement of Oregon's mask mandate and publicly urge all eligible Clackamas County citizens to get vaccinated as quickly as possible to quell the spread of COVID-19."
Fischer moved that the board publicly support the mandate, seconded by Commissioner Martha Schrader, but Commissioner Mark Shull questioned how this would change about a mandate that was already in motion. Smith echoed the sentiment, referring to the motion as a "redundancy," and doubling down on her well-established position that she will "not support any motion ever that has the word mandate."
Savas said one of the Aug. 12 meeting's repercussions was it projected a lack of clarity in the board's messaging regarding the virus. He reiterated that as commissioners, they are also the Board of Health, and rhetoric against masks "dominated" the entire meeting with any opposing viewpoint overpowered by the impassioned crowd.
"We've also heard the other side be as equally as passioned," Smith said. "We've allowed those voices over and over and over, and I think what had happened on Thursday was really an organic messaging."
Shull added that he was elected as a commissioner to "represent the will of the people," and despite the large number of people in attendance, the meeting was simply an exercise in free speech.
"On Thursday night, we had an example of free people expressing their opinions. And God bless them for taking the time to come here," Shull said. "They've had a hard time the last 18 months and they just want to express their views."
On Thursday, Aug. 19, during the last meeting before their recess, Savas reiterated his concerns and urged the board to uphold its responsibilities not only as commissioners but also as the Board of Public Health.
"This is a substantial responsibility we have up here. I was not happy with the fact that we put people at risk here inadvertently," Savas said, adding that he was not accusing anyone in the building of deliberately putting others' health and safety at risk, even if that may have been the outcome.
"The safety of everyone in this building, whether you're staff, whether it's the public, whether it's ourselves — we have a responsibility for the health and welfare and the safety of everyone in this building. And frankly, everyone in this county," Savas said.
He stated his support of mask mandates, and urged residents to put "self interest aside and think about the greater good."
"I encourage people, frankly, to abide as best as possible to state law," he said. "I support the requirement to wear masks. I support people's freedom to whether or not to get a vaccine, but I will encourage people to get a vaccine."
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