Astoria political and business leaders are calling on the state to eliminate prohibitions on indoor activity at restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues in counties classified at extreme risk for the coronavirus.
Mayor Bruce Jones and David Reid, the executive director of the Astoria-Warrenton Area Chamber of Commerce, said that until there is evidence to support the prohibitions, capacity should be the same as counties at high risk — 25% or 50 people, whichever is smaller.
Clatsop County was downgraded by the state from extreme risk to high risk last week, but given the number of new virus cases reported over the past several days, the county could be back at extreme risk by next week.
“Limiting capacity to 25% in indoor eating and drinking, recreation and fitness, and entertainment establishments is a very significant risk mitigation measure providing a more than adequate margin of safety for those establishments which can afford to keep their doors open with such a limited capacity,” Jones said in a letter to Gov. Kate Brown on Dec. 31.
Reid, in a letter to the governor and the Oregon Health Authority on Thursday, said, “These business owners fully understand the real and present danger of rising COVID rates. Neither they nor we are suggesting trading public health for commerce. We simply need to have confidence that the sacrifices they and their employees are making are truly or at least likely preventing infection.
“If there is research, educated opinion, or other data available to support the outright bans, the businesses have a right to see it so they can comply knowing they are doing so for the greater good.”
Reid told The Astorian that the chamber has been asking the state through various channels for data to support the notion that prohibitions are more effective at controlling the spread of the virus than limiting indoor capacity. He said he has not received that data or information.
The state assesses risk in each county by measuring the rate of new virus cases and test positivity over two weeks. During the second week, the state releases data to warn counties of where they stand.
The extreme-risk level is defined as a case rate of 200 or more per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate of 10% or higher.
As of Saturday, Clatsop County had 252 cases per 100,000 over a two-week period. Test positivity was 6.7%.
The county reported 207 cases in December, a record in one month since the start of the pandemic. Forty-seven cases have been reported since the beginning of the new year.
About 60% of the county’s 637 cases have been reported since the beginning of November.
The county said that many of the recent cases appear to be tied to a combination of gatherings, travel and some workplace contacts.
“I want to make it very clear I do not believe the virus is fading away yet or that we can relax our guard,” Jones told The Astorian in an email. “In fact, it is more important than ever that we continue to emphasize following public health guidelines. I do believe, however that the 25% restriction accomplishes the goal of radically reducing the risk of transmission.”
Jones, in his letter to the governor, said that for restaurants and bars, “the ‘yo-yo’ effect of opening and closing every two weeks is overly burdensome logistically. Staff must be brought back on board, and food purchased, without any certainty that the establishment will not be closed again in only two weeks.”
Reid said he has been mostly hearing from restaurant owners affected by the shifting restrictions.
“Early on, they were asking for some warning system before we had these changes,” he said. “And this two-week cycle was a valiant attempt, I think, by the state to provide that with the warning week and things like that. But in reality, in practice, even that’s not long enough. What I’m hearing from restaurateurs is more and more of them saying, ‘If we close down again, we’re going to stay closed to indoor dining just because even at a two-week cycle it’s too much.’”
Reid said the message coming from the state is not complete enough for the sacrifices being required by businesses.
“What business owners are hearing right now is, ‘This will help, trust us,’” he said. “And trust has been eroded a lot this last year everywhere. And so what they need to hear is, ‘This will help, and this is why we believe that.’
“They deserve to hear that.”
Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer and Seaside Mayor Jay Barber also supported reducing the virus restrictions.
“The state has been adaptable in the past, such as with outdoor playgrounds and library books. In both cases, initial restrictions or closures were lifted after time showed they weren’t big vectors for the disease,” Balensifer said in a text message.
“In talking with county, I am aware of only one instance where COVID shut down a restaurant in South County during the pandemic, and my understanding is they did not make community spread.
“Meanwhile, major outbreak sources continue such as fish plants. Illegal social gatherings are the top cause of case counts in Clatsop County. Is it too much to ask for data to correlate state restrictions to empirical risks?”