In neighboring Harney County, a plan to get back to business

Businesses such as this restaurant in Adrian post closed notices and advertise take-out options to their customers. (The Enterprise)

NOTE: The Enterprise is providing free access to its content related to the coronavirus as a community service. Subscriptions at $5 a month help the Enterprise keep this up.

The cattle country of Harney County wants to get back to business, and its leaders have offered to serve as an experiment in Oregon on how that can happen in the face of the coronavirus.

No case of COVID-19 has been reported among the county’s 7,300 people, concentrated in the county seat of Burns and neighboring Hines.

The Harney County Court wrote Gov. Kate Brown a week ago, proposing in respectful tones how the community needed to reopen and pledging to do so carefully.

A day after the commissioners wrote, Brown announced she was considering a plan for reopening the state, setting conditions but no timeline.

Then the county’s two state legislators followed up last Friday with a plan for how Harney County could earn eased restrictions.

The effort of the county in the outback of Oregon addresses the governor’s requirements at a time protests across the state and the nation are building against limitations. Rural counties in eastern Oregon generally have suffered few infections but devastating economic blows. In neighboring Malheur County with 30,000 people, state officials as of Saturday reported five cases of Covid-19 while unemployment claims pile up week by week.

Harney County Judge Pete Runnels, who leads the three-person county commission, isn’t interested in rebelling against Brown’s orders. He said most people consider them sensible. He just wants to get his employers back open while they and their customers obey social distancing rules.

Some, he said, “want to buck the system and just open.” He advises them to “think twice” about jeopardizing licenses and possible prosecution in defying the governor.

Runnells said the idea of making Harney County a test lab for a pandemic recovery was triggered by a call from his sister on Friday, April 10. A former business owner, she pressed him about how long the restrictions would stay in place.

“I told her, ‘We can always write a letter to the governor,’” he said.

Over the next couple of days, Runnels talked with his sister and local business owners about what they would be willing to do to open.

The former pizza franchise operator then sat down and wrote his “Dear Governor Brown” letter that eventually ran to four pages and was co-signed by Commissioners Kristen Shelman and Patty Dorroh.

He described in lively terms conditions in Burns, 130 miles east of Bend and 260 miles from the Capitol. He said local businesses couldn’t last much longer.

“We are so isolated out here that social distancing is pretty normal and due to our two-hour drive to anything bigger, every business out here is ‘ESSENTIAL,’” he wrote.

He said one large farm supply store limits customers to 10 at a time and they have to be on a mission – no browsing. He said small stores ordered supplies last year that will be arriving soon for what would normally be the high tourist season in the outback.

Runnels said medical practices need to open soon.

“The patients that need to take care of procedures can’t continue to wait for their needs to be met,” Runnels wrote. “Local eye and dental clinics service many local patients that rely on monthly visits to adjust and repair glasses and dental work.”

Runnels described a community compliant with the governor’s orders.

“We have abided by the rules, we’ve seen them extended. And we have continued with stricter controls. We just can’t hang on any longer,” Runnels said.

He said Harney County wants to “be a leader coming out of this” and asked Brown to consider amending her restrictions by May 1.

He proposed restaurants open with seating at every other station, and menus sanitized after each use. He said bars could require spaced seating on stools and in booths and close by 9 p.m.

Barbers “could reduce the number of chairs and space them out properly and limit the number of clients waiting for a haircut,” Runnels wrote, adding barbers could wear masks. Boutique shops would be allowed certain numbers of customers at a time, based on square footage, and on the hour sanitize door knobs, credit card machines and other surfaces.

“These are just a few ideas, but the bottom line is folks are HIGHLY AWARE and social distancing will now be a new normal in our lifestyles,” he wrote.

Runnels impressed on the governor the urgency for her to act.

“For Harney County, time is of the essence,” Runnels wrote. “When restrictions are lifted or relaxed, we do not have the population to recover in a few weeks or days as in the metropolitan or larger cities.”

State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Crane, a former Harney County commissioner who served with Runnels, approached the county judge after Brown on Tuesday, April 14, announced her general conditions for letting Oregon start to open up.

Owens suggested pitching Harney County as a sort of guinea pig for testing reopening strategies, and Runnels agreed.

Owens joined forces with state Sen. Lynn Findley, R-Vale, to build on Runnels’ proposal with their own letter to the governor.

“A pilot in Harney County would be invaluable for the state to identify lessons learned and apply them for broader implementation,” they wrote.

They noted no infections have been reported in Harney County but the local Harney District Hospital has a “solid surge plan” that includes evacuating critically ill patients to Bend or Boise, Idaho. They said the hospital is accumulating personal protective gear and has 1,469 N95 masks on hand, considered a critical supply for dealing with infected patients. The legislators said the hospital estimated it would use 40 a day during a surge of patients.

Findley and Owens said the county would plan for tracing contacts of those infected and would test up to 30 people a day, meeting the state standard for testing to satisfactorily detect the scope of the spread of the virus.

“Please let us help this be a success for rural Oregon and the entire state,” they concluded.

Runnels said he hasn’t heard from the governor since the county court’s letter went out.

He was notified, he said, that the governor planned a conference call on Monday with county commissioners from around the state. Runnels said he’s be on the call.

“That’s likely as close as I’m going to get to her,” Runnels said.

Contact editor Les Zaitz by email: [email protected].