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… hold it. Now let it out slowly… slowly… and think about how you’ll handle the easing of COVID restrictions when they take effect on Friday. Yes, we can go back into restaurants, but be smart; continue to be careful.

Looking Ahead

Your favorite restaurants, bars and other businesses want to stay open. You might exhale but they’re still holding their breaths, hoping this doesn’t evaporate after “warning week” because people went nuts and let their guard down.

Easing the restrictions doesn’t mean easing good practices that got us here. We have to keep doing these things even while, especially while, we can go back into our favorite places. Don’t make this Risk-reduction a flash in the pan. The only thing worse than the months of restriction would be to go back on restriction. Play it smart, play it safe. Make this work.

We’re awash in a sea of changing numbers around COVID: confirmed cases, hospitalizations death rate, vaccinations, and more. They’re all very sobering and keep us mindful of those who we have lost personally and as a nation, those who are at greatest risk from the virus as well as the economic downturn, and those who are working fearlessly and tirelessly on the front lines of treatment.

Encouragingly, the U.S. is consistently reporting fewer than 100,000 new daily cases and hospitalizations continued to decline. Oregon is seeing similar declines overall, but not in every county, although our state sadly crossed the threshold of more than 2,000 deaths over the weekend.

The fact that our county has maintained relatively low new case count numbers over the past few days provides a small ray of hope, both medically and economically. We need to seize both the opportunity and responsibility that goes with it. There is significant community and personal interest at stake.

Because we have maintained low numbers throughout the past week to ten days, Columbia County will now move from “Extreme Risk” to “High Risk”—which may not sound like much but means a lot.

First, it means fewer people are getting sick; that’s good. Second, it means there can be further easing of restrictions that allow our businesses, especially gyms and restaurants, to operate differently and welcome guests indoors. Any improvement in that regard is a help to our entire community. What’s more important, though, is making sure they can stay more open, and not get whipsawed by our numbers going back up – making them close down. Again.

For a county to make it (down) to the High Risk level it must have a COVID-19 case count of less than 200 per 100,000 people, and a test positivity rate less than 10%. Even Washington and Multnomah Counties are currently below the case count for the 14-day assessment cycle. Columbia County can, and has, done this too.

What it will take now is to keep on doing what we’re doing and sustain it. Wear your mask or face-

covering. Keep your distance. Don’t hang out with anyone new. Wash your hands – a lot. Clean surfaces – your phone, your keys, your wallet, everything that may get exposed to the virus when you’re out. And keep being responsible.

Being responsible means what we’re doing here, apparently: avoiding outbreaks by avoiding crowds. And parties. And events.

Businesses are being responsible: testing, relentlessly cleaning, shielding, limiting customers and adapting in order to keep doing business. Things like self-serve carts and merchandising, take out, expanding web pages for online ordering as well as e-commerce and Zoom customer service. They want to be working as much as you want them to be. You help make it work by being responsive and respectful. The honor-system at the flower cart is keeping that business alive and brightening the days of people you care for.

The vaccines are slowly getting out there. As frustrating as they are, the systems seem to be improving. But it’s tough on many, especially those without reliable broadband (a lot of people here). Help your neighbors, especially seniors. Go online, figure out the sign-up and register them for a shot. Throw on a mask and drive them to it. The sooner front-liners, teachers, seniors and those with compromised health get vaccinated, the sooner the rest of us will too.

Remember back when we were talking about Response, Recovery and Respect? We were also talking about a fourth R: Resilience. Resilience means doing everything we can to keep the numbers down and keep businesses re-opened. Give business owners the confidence to commit to the next steps toward normal by doing everything you can to reduce your own risk, and that of our County. Work the numbers. Let’s embrace High Risk this weekend and get to Low Risk by March. We can do this.

Paul Vogel is the executive director of the Columbia County Economic Team. He may be reached at 503-410-1061.

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