Timeline casts light on delayed reopening of Oregon
Many people in Multnomah County reacted with dismay and alarm late Thursday night when Gov. Kate Brown ordered a one-week statewide pause in any further county reopenings because of the pandemic quarantine.
Multnomah officials, some business owners and many residents had hoped to go into the first phase of the county's reopening in just a matter of hours — Friday morning. Restaurants that had stocked up for the big day saw their plans implode, and by Friday morning, emotions were running high.
The trigger for Brown's "yellow light" on reopening: The Oregon Health Authority's reporting of a new record for COVID-19 infections on Thursday. The state reported 178 new positive cases of the virus that day, surpassing the previous one-day record of 146 cases set on Sunday.
The number of new cases reported Friday, June 12: 142. That means the three highest tallies since March all occurred within the past six days.
Despite the new wave of cases, many business owners were taken aback.
"It's frustrating when you spend every last dime you have on $3,200 worth of food that you can't sell," said David Ligatich, co-operator of Biscuits Cafe in Gresham. "And it's not just restaurants in Multnomah County, it's all small businesses. We've tried to do everything correctly. We understand there is a pandemic out there. But we're running out of time."
"Why did you wait until 7:30 p.m. to make this announcement?" wrote one person on Twitter, responding to Brown's decision. "I think all the business owners deserved more notice."
"Unfortunately, I will most likely be closing my small salon for good," wrote another.
Brown's decision underscored the uncertainties created when, under pressure from some rural counties and some businesses, she began rapidly reopening the state on May 15 — sooner and faster than some officials and epidemiologists felt was wise.
Oregon Health Authority epidemiologists had felt it would be "more prudent" to delay to later in May or June 1 to continue driving down the number of active case and ensure the state could more easily combat any resurgence of COVID-19, according to emails obtained by the Portland Tribune.?And Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard said Brown should have waited until county governments had had time to prepare. The Oregon State Public Interest Group questioned whether Brown had been placed politics over science.
People were concerned in Multnomah, too. Shortly after the state's reopening began on May 15, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury indicated local health officials were nervous about the potential effects of Brown's immediate lifting of restrictions on retail and daycare statewide. She said the county would gauge the effects of that and make sure it was fully prepared before submitting its application for Phase 1 reopening.
That finally happened on June 5.
But by the evening of June 11, on the brink of when Multnomah County has planned to announce its reopening, Brown's reopening decisions were under renewed scrutiny as trends showed new cases up and hospitalizations climbing.
County officials looking for feedback on the application on Thursday learned their state counterparts were concerned about statewide trends, Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said. Later that evening, just before Brown's press release went out, they got the news.
"This was certainly not the outcome we expected when we submitted our application on June 5," Vines said, during a Friday morning press conference. "I fully acknowledge the disappointment, the frustration, a sense of potential betrayal, feeling like today was going to be the day. … The timing is not what I would have liked to see."
She said Multnomah County officials were comfortable that asmall uptick in hospitalizations was well within the capacity of those hospitals and the community to deal with.
"We as a county felt like we were prepared for that, which is why we moved forward. And the state has cited that as one of many reasons for putting the pause statewide," she said. "We were confident in our application, despite that increase of single-digit numbers in hospitalizations over the last few weeks."
But, she said, many Multnomah residents were not comfortable about reopening.
"A lot of people were still really worried, and worried about going back to work and concerned about viral spread in our community."
Multnomah was the only county that has not been approved for Phase 1 reopening, which allows businesses like restaurant dining rooms and hair dressers to begin serving customers again.
Most counties in Oregon have been approved for Phase II, which allows gatherings of as many as 50 people and loosens up restrictions on work, travel and certain types of business such as churches and theaters.
Reopened too soon?
Asked whether Multnomah officials felt, like others, that Brown had reopened the state too soon, Vines noted that the county waited weeks longer to apply.
"Our actions I think speak for themselves," Vines said. "Multnomah County acknowledged very early on that we had the most to lose from reopening too soon. And the governor made her decision around the reopening on May 15 of retail, and certain other activities. And we, again, took our time to build a really strong system to contain the virus.
"And so I think ultimately, to the extent that that initial reopening was a bit of a stress test on our system, I think we've seen the results now," Vines added. "And it's time to relook at the data, look at what we have in place and decide with the state how to move forward."
A spokesman for Brown defended the pace of her reopening decisions, saying in an email that "all these decisions were made in close consultation with OHA's doctors and epidemiologists, as well as the doctors on the Governor's Medical Advisory Panel."
It was late Thursday that Gov. Brown made the call that the data isn't in yet, and a one-week delay would allow time to find out what sort of "second wave" Oregon faces.
"When we began reopening nearly a month ago, I was clear that COVID-19 case counts would rise," Brown said in a Friday morning press conference. "Unfortunately we are now seeing that happening in the state, in both urban and rural Oregon. As I have said before, reopening comes with real risk. And that's why we are carefully monitoring the ability of our public health system to respond to COVID-19 cases without becoming overwhelmed. The noticeable increase in COVID-19 infections in Oregon over the past week is certainly cause for concern.
"Look, I know this is extremely frustrating," Brown added. "We are all really disappointed. I personally miss going to my favorite restaurants and my favorite boutiques and I know other Oregonians do as well. These small businesses are truly the heart and soul of Oregon's economy, and frankly the heart and soul of our culture and I am hoping that we can get them up and running in Multnomah County as quickly as possible. However, I have to put the safety and health of Oregonians first."
Vines, for her part, said she can't predict how the numbers will look and whether the county will be able to reopen in a week's time. She said the county and the state need to provide a clear message, even if that message is "We don't know."
Said Vines, "The last thing I want to do is to continue to yoyo people with a yes/no."
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