Restaurants could seat, barbers could cut soon under Malheur County’s phased plan to ease restrictions

Tanya Navarrete, marketing and development director at Four Rivers Cultural Center, hands out make and care kits at the center Saturday, April 18. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

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This story has been updated with additional details and a link to the county’s plan.

Residents of Malheur County could be having dinner at restaurants and getting haircuts again under a plan to ease state restrictions week by week.

The 20-page plan guides residents and businesses through phases meant to protect the county from a surge of coronavirus infections while returning life to something closer to normal. It was produced by the Malheur County Health Department, other county agencies and local health officials. The Malheur County Court on Wednesday, April 29, approved the plan.

“The reason public health got behind the plan is because of our faith in our residents” said Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department. “I think people will continue to follow social distancing protocols and take extra precautionary measures understanding we are not going back to business as usual.”

“These plans will evolve and won’t be something you will set in stone, which makes sense,” said Don Hodge, Malheur County commissioner.

DOCUMENT: Malheur County reopening plan

The plan could start as soon as May 8, but that requires the approval of Gov. Kate Brown. She has set conditions for easing requirements in place to slow the spread of COVID-19 but hasn’t said yet when she will allow reopening to occur.

In Malheur County, health officials point to a low infection rate and an increased ability to test and detect the virus as reasons for the community to move towards greater freedom.

The planning document underscores the need to get Malheur County back on its feet.

“We must respond to the many pleas we have heard from residents who are struggling while at the same time listening to public health officials,” the document said. “The economic and social impacts of the national mitigation efforts have had catastrophic effects to the already extremely vulnerable population.”

The plan said that careful planning would keep risks of infection low but reopening public life would “start repairing the damage to the social structures in the community.”

County officials propose that restaurants open by keeping a social distance of six feet between diners, seating at every other booth. The restaurants would have to log in each customer so they could be traced if an infection was detected.

“Employees in contact with patrons will wear a cloth face covering at all times,” the plan said.

The first phase also would allow hairdressers, barbers and other professionals to go back to work. The state restrictions required such businesses to close.

Those providing such services would be required to wear a face mask and schedule appointments. Walk-ins would not be allowed.

More restrictions would drop if those in the first phase prove effective and county officials detect no increase in the number of people infected. The second phase would follow by two weeks and allow churches, theaters and other institutions to open.

They would be required to maintain social distancing and those participating in those activities would be encouraged to wear face masks.

And the final phase would come into play a month into the eased restrictions, allowing “unrestricted” staffing of worksites and allow those in vulnerable populations, such as the elderly, to resume movement in public.

The plan cautions that health and medical officials would closely monitor the community. Any indication of a surge in infections would lead to a return to some restrictions and a delay in additional phases.

“We are not going back to business as usual or even life as we knew it two months ago,” the plan said.

For such plans to be approved, state officials said they would require testing, better tracing of contacts of those who are infected, and a local capability to treat seriously ill patients.

Malheur County’s plan said that state standards would require 105 tests a week. A drive-through clinic on Wednesday, April 29, in Ontario, was to conduct 100 tests. The county has ordered 1,000 tests and so far has received 150, the county plan said.

The report identified triggers that would put a hold on new phases or could require reinstating some. They included

20 cases of infected individuals in one week. The county so far has had a total of seven.

4 people hospitalized for treatment of COVID-19. None of the seven infected individuals have required hospitalization.

2 patients needing a ventilator. None have so far in Malheur County.

Area hospitals at 30% of patient capacity.

The county plan also said that health authorities could ramp up contact tracing, which involves careful questioning of infected individuals to identify with whom they have been in prolonged contact. The plan said the county could deploy 15 investigators who could handle 30 cases in a week.

Reporter Pat Caldwell contributed to this story.