WashCo board chair backtracks on possible new dining restrictions
Washington County's top elected official says she won't pursue a temporary indoor dining ban to combat a worsening hospital capacity crisis across Oregon.
At a meeting Thursday, Aug. 19, with restaurant owners, industry association officials and local elected leaders from across the county, Kathryn Harrington, chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners, said she has taken the possibility of issuing new restrictions on restaurants off the table.
The virtual meeting had nearly 100 people in attendance and was organized by the Washington County Chamber of Commerce.
Two days earlier, during a board of commissioners work session, Harrington pushed for a four-week ban on indoor dining, getting support from a majority of the five-member governing body, as was first reported by The Banks Post.
Public health officials had indicated to Harrington that such a ban would help reduce a dire burden on hospitals, which have seen a dramatic increase in hospitalizations due to the delta variant of the coronavirus, she said Tuesday, Aug. 17.
But Harrington told business leaders Thursday that she has dropped the idea.
"I'm no longer advancing the ask to restrict dining in any way," Harrington said Thursday.
Earlier in the meeting, she said she met with leaders of local chambers of commerce from across the county on Wednesday to discuss the possibility of new restrictions.
"Let me be clear, we do have a humanitarian crisis," Harrington said. "We want to ensure we're doing our best to protect lives — especially for kids who are just about to start the school year — but also to preserve our economic recovery. None of us wants to impact your ability to run your businesses."
Facing the most COVID-19 patients in hospital and intensive care beds in Oregon since the beginning of the pandemic, Harrington said that public health officials across the region would like to see a statewide shutdown of public spaces.
"The problem is a state-level problem," Harrington said. "Doing something just in Washington County is not going to be enough to change the situation for regional hospitals."
Ahead of Gov. Kate Brown's press conference Thursday, Harrington said Brown would not announce a statewide shutdown of public spaces.
Brown did announce Thursday, however, a requirement that all healthcare workers and K-12 school staff and volunteers be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or six weeks after vaccines receive full U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval, whichever is later.
Harrington urged mask-wearing and social distancing regardless of vaccination status, noting the high transmissibility of the delta variant and its ability to infect fully vaccinated people.
She also reiterated her call for people to get vaccinated if they haven't yet, as public health officials say the vast majority of hospital admissions due to the virus are among unvaccinated people.
After Harrington's announcement, Deanna Palm, president and chief executive of the Washington County Chamber of Commerce — formerly known as the Hillsboro Chamber of Commerce — quipped, "Even though I think everybody was on mute, I heard a collective sigh of relief."
Multiple meeting attendees noted that the restaurant industry has been among the hardest hit economically by pandemic restrictions.
Harrington said she would also not pursue capacity limits for restaurants or require restaurant patrons to show proof of vaccination before entering an establishment.
Instead of more restrictions, Harrington has asked county staff to bring a proposal forward on Tuesday, Aug. 24, outlining ways the county can enforce the current statewide indoor mask mandate.
Asked for details on the enforcement policy, Harrington said it will be a complaint-based approach, similar to how the county handled enforcement of previous pandemic restrictions.
After a first complaint about masking not being enforced at a business, county staff would contact the business to make sure officials are aware of the mask requirement and provide education, Harrington said.
"With a second complaint, we'll follow up with the businesses again, and with a third complaint, that's where a civil fine would come in," she said.
Harrington said enforcement will focus on business employees, not patrons, noting it's difficult for business employees to enforce rules for patrons.
One business owner, who was identified only as Michelle, said prior enforcement of restrictions has been inconsistent, adding that previously there has been a lack of clear guidance on the rules.
"What does it mean to be having your masks indoors for restaurants when you can take them off while you're eating and drinking?" she asked. "Does that mean while you're actively eating and drinking? If I have a cup in my hand while I'm walking around, is that OK? I get into these conflicts with my customers all the time, and then I end up being a mask bouncer, and I don't want to be that."
The county would only be enforcing the state rules, Harrington said.
"As clear or unclear as those state rules are, there you go," the county chair said.
Although Harrington said she wouldn't ask county staff to bring new restriction proposals forward, she said other county commissioners could if they wanted to.
At the meeting Tuesday when new restrictions were first discussed, Commissioners Pam Treece and Nafisa Fai expressed support for an indoor dining ban, according to The Banks Post.
Fai said in an interview Thursday that she was surprised by Harrington's change of course.
She wants to consult with the county's public health team to hear more about whether an indoor dining ban in Washington County would be beneficial to the statewide hospital bed shortage, before she considers asking staff to move forward with such a proposal, she said.
"I think we need to do something," Fai said, adding that she wants more information about other possible measures to reduce virus transmission.
In comments provided to Pamplin Media Group after this story was published Thursday, Harrington said, "Our regional public health officials have informed us that, without a statewide or a regionally consistent approach, banning indoor dining would be ineffective."
Harrington added that people should gather outside when socializing with people who are not part their household until the end of September.
In an email Friday morning, Treece said she supported the ban on indoor dining with the caveat that the county take steps to mitigate the economic damage to restaurants as a result of the ban.
"With new information regarding the effectiveness of a ban, I support the position of the chair," Treece added. "I do support concepts that increase the rate of vaccinations and the wearing of masks to reduce the spread of this virus."
Commissioner Jerry Willey, who was in attendance at the meeting Thursday, previously said he wouldn't support an indoor dining ban.
Commissioner Roy Rogers said Thursday in an interview he supports not implementing an indoor dining ban right now, but he added that it's important for the county to evaluate measures to reduce transmission of the virus.
Rogers said he is eager to see details about how the county plans to enforce the statewide mask mandate next week.
Editor's note: This story has been updated with comments from Washington County Commissioner Pam Treece and additional comments from Washington County Chair Kathryn Harrington.
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