The Clatsop County Board of Commissioners has called on Gov. Kate Brown to lift restrictions for counties at extreme risk for the coronavirus.

The governor on Tuesday announced that 15 counties will move into the state’s extreme-risk level on Friday — one week ahead of the regular cycle as virus case counts and hospitalizations soar across Oregon. Indoor activity at restaurants, bars, gyms and entertainment venues is prohibited in counties at extreme risk.

Vaccine

COVID-19 vaccines sit ready to be administered at the Clatsop County Fairgrounds.

Clatsop County will remain at high risk for the virus. But Commissioner Mark Kujala, the board’s chairman, said shutdowns across the state are imminent, and, at this point in the pandemic, are even more economically detrimental.

The board’s letter to the governor on Tuesday is part of an organized effort with the Association of Oregon Counties to show solidarity with the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, which called Brown’s new restrictions arbitrary and discriminatory.

“The time has come to allow our communities to move forward while embracing continued health and safety precautions,” the board’s letter said. “Our people understand the risks associated with COVID and our businesses have proven their ability to adhere to the highest expectations in safety, sanitation and air quality. It is no coincidence Oregon has not seen one instance of a superspreader event tied to our hospitality industry.

“You must know restrictions on specific types of businesses compared to others within our local communities is creating rifts and dividing people rather than bringing Oregonians together. We can flip the script by removing state mandated business restrictions on our communities while empowering our county health departments to uphold high expectations for ongoing health and safety measures as recommended by the CDC (federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention).”

‘Today’s announcement will save lives’

Brown has said she expects this will be the last time prohibitions will have to be put in place.

Counties will move into or remain in extreme risk when they reach the virus case rate threshold and percent positivity. In addition, Oregon would have to have patients with the virus occupying 300 hospital beds or more and a 15% increase in the seven-day hospitalization average over the past week.

Counties will stay in extreme risk for a maximum of three weeks.

In an effort to speed up the return to normal business operations, Brown said counties will be evaluated weekly for at least the next three weeks. Updates to county risk levels will be announced on Tuesdays. The governor is also working with state lawmakers to approve a $20 million small business emergency relief package to support impacted businesses in counties at extreme risk through the commercial rent relief program.

“If we don’t act now, doctors, nurses, hospitals and other health care providers in Oregon will be stretched to their limits treating severe cases of COVID-19,” the governor said in a statement on Tuesday. “Today’s announcement will save lives and help stop COVID-19 hospitalizations from spiking even higher. With new COVID-19 variants widespread in so many of our communities, it will take all of us working together to bring this back under control.

“The fastest way to lift health and safety restrictions is for Oregonians to get vaccinated as quickly as possible and follow the safety measures we know stop this virus from spreading. I recognize the burden these restrictions place on Oregon businesses and working families. My goal is to lift these restrictions as soon as it is safely possible, and keep Oregon on the path for lifting most health and safety requirements by the end of June so we can fully reopen our economy.

“But we will only get there if enough Oregonians get vaccinated. There are appointments available right now all across the state.”

‘Let us do our own thing now’

In a Facebook post, Commissioner Courtney Bangs said that although she wishes the county’s letter was more direct, she said the county is asking the governor “to let us do our own thing now.”

Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer supported the board’s letter. “I agree with Chair Kujala that it’s time to hand the reins to the local health department where local issues can be best managed,” the mayor said in a Facebook post. “We’ve already seen how pitifully aloof (Oregon Health Authority) can be in investigating our region’s largest outbreaks, and I would have greater confidence in professionals better in tune with the situation on the ground. It was Clatsop County who was poised to take action when the state told them to step aside during our biggest outbreaks.

“Furthermore, the OSHA (Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and OHA guidelines are now out of step with CDC best practices on sanitization, and masks. It’s time to do what other states are doing — give the authority back to the counties. Local authorities have shown they are willing to take drastic measures the state wouldn’t dream of to meet emergencies.”

Nicole Bales is a reporter for The Astorian, covering police, courts and county government. Contact her at 971-704-1724 or nbales@dailyastorian.com.