The latest figures for Covid in Malheur County. (Malheur Enterprise graphic)
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Gov. Kate Brown said Friday that Oregonians aren’t doing enough to get the coronavirus under control, urging local authorities to start enforcing her orders and warning business closures and even longer delays in school openings could be coming.
In a news conference, the governor implored Oregonians again to wear masks and observe social distancing to drive down infection rates of Covid.
She said she would decide by month’s end whether the state has responded sufficiently.
If it doesn’t, she said, she could shut down business again, particularly restaurants and bars.
And she raised the prospect that most school children may be months from returning to classrooms.
Her remarks came as Malheur County, with one of the highest infection rates in Oregon, crossed the threshold Friday to 1,000 infected residents, dating back to March.
The governor attempted Friday to be both be hopeful and stern.
She and her health advisors noted that the total number of cases in Oregon has started to slow. Hospitalizations are down. The number of people dying from Covid has dropped week to week.
But the governor and state health officials said the decline wasn’t steep enough, especially if schools are to resume classroom teaching. The number of reported cases has been about 300 daily statewide. They said that should have to drop to 60 to meet the standards set to open schools.
By the state’s calculation, Oregon won’t reach that measure until next April at the current rate of infections.
Brown is turning to local government, police and business leaders to speed up Oregon’s recovery from the virus.
Most striking, she called for enforcing her mandates, which can mean someone could be fined up to $500 for not wearing a mask or deliberately violating requirements to keep 6 feet away from others.
“Not enforcing these requirements puts the entire community at risk,” Brown said.
Brown particularly urged local officials to be “creative” about enforcing limits on social gatherings. In Malheur County, gatherings for events such as birthdays are limited to 10 people indoors and 25 outdoors.
She said “too many” Covid cases over the summer in Oregon resulted from informal get togethers.
Her call for enforcement stands in contrast to her repeated statements in recent weeks that she didn’t intend to unleash “party police.”
But in a statement to the Enterprise after the news conference, a governor’s spokesman underscored the need to get tougher.
Brown was making clear that “now is the time to step up further when it comes to enforcement and compliance of requirements for face coverings, physical distancing, and social get-togethers. She expects local law enforcement to set an example for the community, educate the public, and enforce the law when necessary,” according to an emailed statement from Charles Boyle, the governor’s deputy communications director.
“We’d expect an active push for educating the public from local law enforcement first – handing out masks before resorting to handing out citations. Based on where we are now, though, it might be time for some citations to individuals be issued.”
Boyle also addressed earlier concerns from police agencies that they don’t have the resources to enforce the governor’s orders.
“Local law enforcement officers routinely respond to public noise complaints for house parties and social gatherings,” Boyle wrote. “They can do the same for parties that pose a public health and safety risk.”
Chiefs of the Ontario and Nyssa police departments and Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe in the past said they didn’t intend to enforce the orders. They weren’t available late Friday to address the governor’s new call for enforcement.
The president of the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police said Friday that police had no new guidance from the governor.
“We would stay with the previous guidance of “educate and inform” and refer matters to the appropriate state regulatory agency,” said the president, Woodburn Police Chief Jim Ferraris.
He said police departments likely would handle “chronic violations or significant” incidents case by case.
“Many law enforcement agencies have significant resource challenges so this seems to be the best approach on this public health issue,” he said.
The Association of Oregon Counties said in statement Friday night that Brown’s call for enforcement “came as a surprise” and said the governor had to work more closely with county governments.
“Counties have limited enforcement staff,” the statement said. “Counties ask the governor to reach out to sheriffs for support on enforcement and provide resources for enforcement bodies to safely support mitigation measures.”
In her news conference, the governor warned that unless more enforcement and use of precautions is evident in declining infections, she’s ready to impose stricter measures across the state. She said her goal is to clear the way for schools to open sooner.
Stricter measures would include again forcing restaurants and bars to close to sit-down dining. She also suggested there could be travel restrictions, requiring a quarantine for those visiting or return from states with high Covid infection rates.
“My hope is that we don’t have to issue further restrictions,” the governor said. “The choice is in the hands of Oregonians.”
Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected].
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