Malheur County businesses, government offices shut doors to thwart COVID

A sign posted at the Malheur County Courthouse tells people with county business who to call for various offices. The Malheur County Circuit Court is still open for business, but parties must call to gain entry to the building.

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Day by day, more businesses go dark and more government agencies lock their doors to the public as Malheur County complies with new state rules intended to stop the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Starting on Tuesday, daily life changed even more after Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregonians to stay home except for work, essential chores or to go get fresh air without a crowd around.

Barbers and hairdressers were told to close. So were gyms.

More retailers – furniture stores, jewelers and gift shops – must close.

Even tattoo parlors by law are required to lock up and shut down.

How long this lasts depends, according to health officials, on whether people obey the new orders to stay home. The disease, COVID-19, spreads by coughs and sneezes and contamination of surfaces.

A person infected may not show symptoms for up to two weeks, and health officials are certain that ill people who haven’t been diagnosed are moving around in public in Malheur County and across the state.

As of Monday, the Oregon Health Authority reported 191 people were infected, none in Malheur County. The agency reported that there have been 13 tests conducted in the county, all proving negative for the disease. COVID-19 is spreading rapidly in the U.S.

“The likelihood of an outbreak across Malheur County increases each day,” said Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director in a Sunday statement.

To keep from overwhelming medical resources, she said, “it is necessary for every single person to follow social distancing and community mitigation measures.”

Brown put an exclamation point on that in her new executive order on Monday. She banned gatherings of any type, regardless of the number of people, outside homes. She wants Oregonians to restrict travel, going only to work, to get necessities such as groceries, and to travel nearby to take a hike or otherwise engage in outdoor activities that don’t involve other people or contact sports.

“Failure to comply with any of the provisions of this executive order constitutes an imminent threat and creates an immediate danger,” Brown said in her order.

Businesses heed call

Across Malheur County, many places acted on their own to close or button up against public visits. Others were getting ready to go dark.

Richard Fitzsimonds, manager of Ashley Home Furniture in Ontario, said he is awaiting guidance from his corporate headquarters regarding the governor’s order.

“But, yeah, we will have to shut our doors,” he said.

Fitzsimonds said his store would still provide online shopping and trucks “will still be able to come in.”

“We will be able to deliver people’s furniture if they want us to,” he said.

Two years ago, Ashley Home Furniture moved from downtown Ontario to its current spot in West Park Plaza after severe winter storms severely damaged the store.

“Since we’ve moved up here, we’ve had the best two years of business,” said Fitzsimonds.

Lately, he said, business has been very good.

“We’ve had good traffic all week. The people who are coming through the doors are buyers,” he said.

He said he isn’t sure what the impact of a closure will be for his store.

“If we need to go a few weeks, hopefully we can weather that storm,” he said.

Offices limit access

In Vale, the Malheur County Courthouse became a by-appointment-only government center on Tuesday. The Vale building where people go to pay property tax bills, record deeds, register to vote or meet with county officials is now off limits. County officials were still working out the details, but said county residents should do as much online as possible and otherwise make appointments to conduct business.

City Halls were taking similar approaches. Nyssa City Hall is restricted and the Vale City Hall and city facilities such as the library closed last week. The Ontario City Hall was declared closed over the weekend, as was the nearby office for community development. The Ontario closure was scheduled to last only the week, but the governor encouraged all local governments to follow her lead. She closed state offices to the public with no projection on when they would reopen.

In Ontario, the state Department of Human Services office in Ontario remains open for business, but employees are encouraging those who need services to reach out by phone or online. At the office in east Ontario, the agency set up stations for people to connect with employees by phone or internet.

“Our staff are also disinfecting all equipment and high touch areas,” said Wendy Hill, the DHS district manager who is working remotely.

Hill said her agency hasn’t seen a surge in applications for any specific program. But she said the agency anticipates additional clients coming in as more businesses close down.

“We have some parents who are scared for their children and not having visits is concerning,” said Christine Phillips, program manager for child welfare at the Department of Human Services.

The department is suspending visits for two weeks for children in foster care. They’ve turned to Facetime and three-way calls to keep families connected.

“We’re using tech as much as we can for visitation for our kids in child welfare,” Hill said. 

Child welfare is still responding to abuse and neglect calls.

Philip Milburn, the supervising wildlife biologist at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that the Ontario office is closed to the public, but the staff is still assisting people over the phone and online. 

“Almost everything we do can be done online,” Milburn said. “We are here and working, but closed to the public,” Milburn added.

Parks clearing out

And on Sunday, the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department decided to close every state campground. Campers were supposed to be out by midday Monday, including at Lake Owyhee State Park.

The governor’s order also is forcing museums and other institutions to close, but many in Malheur County were ahead of her.

Matt Stringer, executive director of the Four Rivers Cultural Center, which includes a museum, said the center has been closed since Monday, March 16.

 “Pretty much every meeting has been canceled,” Stringer said. “Employees have been directed to work at home.”

Stringer said he and two others are working from the office, and he does not know when the center will reopen.

Stringer said he expects the center to remain closed until the state relaxes the current restrictions.

For now, performances and shows have been canceled, including the April 3 production of “Dancing with the Four Rivers Stars.”

The Elks Lodge in Ontario has been closed since Tuesday, March 17, and doesn’t plan on opening up until the middle of April. The office is open a couple hours a day, but the bar and lounge are closed. 

And there are fewer places to go for parents with kids home from school. Youth clubs were to close, although the local Boys and Girls Club closed earlier and isn’t scheduled to fire back up until Sunday, March 29. The governor’s order, however, is likely to extend the closure.

And all playgrounds are now off limits. The city of Ontario was posting signs at its playgrounds to that effect.

The Ontario School District said its playgrounds and fields would be closed and gates locked.

The governor’s order provides for criminal prosecution for individuals or businesses that violate the new rules. Violators could face misdemeanor prosecution with a punishment of up to 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine.

But local police don’t expect to load up patrol cars with those who break the six-foot barrier that is considered legal social distancing.

Police: educate, assist

In Nyssa, Police Chief Ray Rau said restrictions on access doesn’t mean city government is closed.

 “If you come to the police department, knock and we will come outside,” said Rau.

Rau said the city has no plans to lay off any employees.

He is encouraging residents to do what they do best: Help each other out.

“People here want to help other people,” he said.

Rau said his department plans to use a light hand regarding violations of Brown’s order.

“We are going to educate people. We need to get through this together and let’s set the example,” he said.

Rau said his department has all of the personal protective equipment it needs. Now, he said, his department is focused on helping the community.

“We are taking food and water to the elderly. Just helping out. We check on people, call them and check on them,” said Rau.

At the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the local Emergency Planning Committee along with a command group were set to meet this week to review COVID-19 response measures, said Rich Harriman, Malheur County emergency manager.

The emergency planning group consists of representatives from city, local and state agencies and medical providers.

Harriman said the jail also instituted procedures in response to the COVID-19 virus outbreak.

Only essential visits are allowed at the jail in Vale and there is no face-to-face contact between attorneys and their clients.

Sheriff Brian Wolfe said his office will take “selective and limited action” to enforce the governor’s order.

The focus will be on educating people, Wolfe added, and taking action if someone is abusing the order by throwing a large party, for instance. 

“We will tell them why we believe they need to cease their activity and hopefully they will voluntarily comply,’ Wolfe said. 

Steven Romero, Ontario police chief, said that his officers will take a case-by-case approach to enforcing the governor’s directive.

“We are implementing everything the state is saying, but when it comes to enforcement, we are going to have to take each situation one at a time and see where it takes us,” Romero said. 

Romero is asking the public not to place an extra burden on a police force that is already trying to keep criminals off the streets. 

“Don’t challenge it,” Romero said of Brown’s executive order. “Be responsible, be respectful, and follow the lead,” he said. 

“And hopefully, we’ll move on beyond this and look back at it. But we can destroy our community too if we are reckless,” Romero said. 

He said his department is taking a common-sense approach to the situation.

Romero said the department might refer specific incidents related to businesses to their respective regulators. For example, if an incident involves a marijuana dispensary, it would be referred to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, he said. 

“For right now there is no way in the world the Ontario Police Department has enough people to go around and to make sure every single business is closed,” Romero said. “We have to prioritize based on typical public needs.”

Romero said he’s had discussions with the Malheur County Sheriff’s Office, the Nyssa Police Department and Oregon State Police on contingency plans for sharing resources. 

He’s concerned about his officers being exposed to the virus and potentially put out of commission. 

“If one person catches it, then my whole police force can get wiped out,” Romero said. “So, that is why we are using common sense.”

The department has on average two to four officers on patrol, Romero added.

Evictions halted

In a separate order, the governor imposed a 90-day moratorium on evictions for nonpayment. According to 2018 data from the Census Bureau, renters occupied 4,164 units in Malheur County – 41% of all homes. 

The order affects close to half of the occupied homes in Malheur County. 

Some rental complex operators in the county felt the order would have little impact on their business. 

Jeff Passadore, a representative with the Portland-based Cambridge Real Estate, which manages three rental properties in the county, said the most disruption he expects would come from the stay-at-home order. 

“We haven’t had a nonpayment eviction in those properties in years,” Passadore said of Ontario Manor and Nyssa Manor. “Those are all rent-restricted properties limited to low-income seniors and individuals with disabilities. There is federally funded rental assistance that pays a substantial amount of residents’ rents.”

Other landlords couldn’t be reached and there was no immediate information of how many eviction cases have been filed in Malheur County Justice Court.

Contact reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected].