To the relief of cash-strapped restaurants and residents desperate for a return to normalcy despite a fourth wave of COVID-19 cases, Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday announced that by the end of the week she’ll lift a set of “extreme risk” restrictions that have stifled businesses in 15 counties across Oregon.
What’s more, Brown said she doesn’t expect to restore those restrictions again during the pandemic.
The extreme risk restrictions have been in place in the 15 counties only since last Friday, but the governor said Tuesday they will be removed this Friday because one of her pre-set metrics had not been met: The seven-day average of hospitalized COVID-19 patients statewide grew by only 14.9% — not the necessary 15%. The state won’t implement extreme risk conditions on new counties because of this missed metric, either.
If the number of hospitalized patients had increased by just two more people over the past week, the 15% requirement would have been met and all 15 counties — plus at least two new ones — would have fallen under extended extreme risk public safety measures by the end of the week.
“Based on today’s numbers, I am keeping my commitment to Oregonians,” Brown said in a statement Tuesday. “ … I know this will bring relief to many across the state.”
Brown and public health officials linked the strictest business restrictions to three metrics: high coronavirus case rates at the county level; statewide COVID-19 hospitalizations above 300; and COVID-19 hospitalizations increasing weekly by at least 15%.
Until Tuesday, it appeared restrictions would remain in counties identified last week as well as a few others based on their increasing local case rates.
But a slight dip in reported hospitalizations Tuesday — to 345 COVID-19 patients — slowed Oregon’s overall growth rate, meaning one of Brown’s criteria had no longer been met.
Brown’s decision to initially place counties in “extreme risk” last week drew intense criticism from many Oregonians, even though hospitalizations at the time had climbed by 37% in a week. Tuesday, she appeared to struggle with her decision to remove the designation starting this Friday.
She didn’t announce her decision until after 5 p.m. Tuesday — several hours later than she typically has announced changes to county risk levels and restrictions in the past. Officials had declined throughout the afternoon to address what changes would be made.
Asked if Brown considered keeping restrictions in place or extending them, Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor, would not directly answer.
“I think it’s fair to say there were internal discussions to review the data and discuss what that would mean for county risk level changes,” he said in a text message.
Multnomah and Clackamas counties now will be among the 15 counties allowed to reopen indoor dining rooms at 25% capacity come Friday, among other loosening restrictions, as the counties drop into a “high risk” designation. Washington County, which would have moved into extreme risk because of its rising cases of COVID-19 over the past two weeks, will remain at high risk.
Brown said she doesn’t expect any counties to be designated as extreme risk again because of the growing number of Oregonians getting vaccinated. Tuesday, that stood at about 32% fully vaccinated and 46% partially vaccinated, roughly in line with the national averages.
“Let me be clear: Across the state, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still high, and Oregon is not out of the woods yet,” the governor said. “ … Vaccinations are still our best path to protecting our loved ones, and staying on track to fully reopen our economy by the end of June.”
Oregon’s fourth surge in coronavirus cases began in March, like much the rest of the nation. But Oregon is among a minority of states bucking a national trend of declining coronavirus cases in the past few weeks.
Last week, new known cases grew faster in Oregon than anywhere else in the country. And while Oregon has had the third lowest number of known infections per capita since the beginning of the pandemic, it ranks 12th highest over the past two weeks. New infections have increased 16% over that time period.
But over the past four days, the seven-day rolling average of new infections has dropped and officials are hopeful the tide is turning in the state.
Under the extreme risk designation, restaurants and bars in counties representing nearly 70% of Oregonians were prohibited from offering indoor dining. Gyms, movie theaters, concert halls, bowling alleys and indoor swimming pools were allowed up to six patrons at a time. But businesses could service up to 100 customers outdoors at a time, a number some businesses such as restaurants said didn’t help because they don’t have the outdoor space.
The affected counties are: Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Grant, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Lane, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk and Wasco. At least two other counties — Washington and Benton — would have moved to extreme risk if hospitalizations had grown by 15%.
Under the more lenient high risk restrictions, businesses — including restaurants, bars, gyms, bowling alleys, movie theaters, concert halls and indoor pools — are allowed to operate at a maximum of 25% capacity or 50 people indoors, whichever is smaller. (See the full list of restrictions here.)
Jason Brandt, president of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said Brown’s loosening grip on the dining industry is “a huge relief to thousands of business owners and tens of thousands of workers in our industry.” Some owners, he said, had been tracking the number of hospitalizations and percentage increases daily.
Brandt added that with the busiest day of the year in the restaurant industry falling on Sunday, May 9, the changes will come in the nick of time.
“Just in time,” he said, “for Mother’s Day.”