Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is defending her decision to impose more COVID-19 restrictions on some parts of the state the same day 15 Oregon counties, including Columbia County, were forced to close indoor dining and recreation.
“Cases are widespread, driven by new, more contagious variants. Oregon leads the nation for our rate of increase in cases over the last two weeks,” Brown said Friday. “I was presented with data showing two paths Oregon could take.”
Brown explained last week’s decision to cancel a warning period and force the counties into the extreme-risk category of virus restrictions as the choice between those two paths: One path without restrictions and with additional virus deaths, and another path with more restrictions and fewer deaths.
“As your governor, I chose to save lives,” Brown said.
Facing significant opposition
As Columbia County returns today to Extreme High risk under the state's pandemic health and …
Since she announced her plan to re-impose the restrictions on indoor dining and recreation, the governor has faced significant opposition from impacted businesses and local government leaders concerned about the damaging economic effects of the plan.
Earlier this week, dozens of county officials from across the state signed onto a letter from the Association of Oregon Counties and the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, calling on the governor to pull back on her plan.
“The variants are indeed troublesome, and we share your concern for their spread. But shutting down our restaurants and further depriving Oregonians of their right to make calculated community engagement risks when the virus continues to spread elsewhere will not result in success,” the 78 county commissioners wrote in the letter.
The county leaders pointed to the toll the pandemic’s restrictions have taken on their communities and economies, saying the restrictions are dividing communities “rather than bringing Oregonians together” and asking for greater local control over pandemic restrictions.
In response, Brown pointed to the state of the virus.
“What I would respond to in terms of the elected officials and businesses is that COVID is surging across Oregon right now,” Brown said. “It takes community-wide measures to make sure that we can protect our most vulnerable Oregonians.”
While showing no signs of letting up the extreme-risk closures, Brown offered one concession for businesses impacted by the current closures: A plan with state legislators to provide $20 million in relief funds.
Those funds will be passed to the 15 counties in the extreme-risk category for distribution to businesses, the governor said.
“Economic relief is something I can do as your governor to help Oregonians impacted by this fourth surge. What I can’t do is bring back someone’s life lost to this virus,” Brown said. “That’s why, as hard as this is, we must act immediately.”
State health officials also placed a timeline on the closures, saying Friday the counties in the extreme-risk category will stay there for a maximum of three weeks if case rates follow predicted trends.
Those trends are the basis of the extreme-risk closure policy, said Peter Graven, the Oregon Health & Science University data scientist who helps the state predict how the virus will spread.
“The good news is, when we pair these data together, it shows us that we have just three to four more weeks until we are in good shape,” Graven said. “That’s when cases will fall and our vaccine levels will be high enough that — with basic preventive measures — the virus cannot effectively grow.”
The state officials again pointed to the data to explain why the current spike pushed them to force more closures.
“I think what we’re seeing now is similar to what we saw in the fall. We are seeing an increase in cases across the state, traced to multiple different sources,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist. “We’re also seeing an increase in hospitalizations like we saw in the fall: A curve that became very steep and pushed us close to not having the specialized care in intensive care units that every Oregonian deserves, whether they have COVID, or a heart attack or motor vehicle crash.”
Graven said that last point, the increase in hospitalizations, is the state’s main concern, since hospital capacity is limited.
He said his mathematical models show the state could have lost 178 additional lives by the end of summer without the added restrictions, with most coming in the next several weeks.
The governor is still optimistic about lifting restrictions, saying the economy could see a reopening to pre-pandemic life by the end of June.
But that’ll only happen if vaccination rates finally outpace virus spread and hospitalizations, the OHA officials said Friday.
“The balance we’ve had in fighting this disease has really been it’s not policy that drives the change, its policy with people following that policy,” Sidelinger said. “The vast majority of Oregonians are doing what they can to protect themselves and their loved ones, but over these next few weeks, we need more Oregonians to join us.”