Malheur County faces a holiday shutdown as new state Covid restrictions take hold

Free testing for Covid will be done on Tuesday after the Malheur County Fairgrounds. The Malheur County Health Department says the testing from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. is “pain free” and vital to helping the community contain the virus. (The Enterprise/File)

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Business and social life in Malheur County and across Oregon will be even more limited starting next week as Gov. Kate Brown issued a stark call Friday to confront “a very dangerous situation” with the spreading coronavirus.

There is no sugar coating for what’s coming. Under Brown’s new orders, in effect at least from Nov. 18-Dec. 2, people will be limited to no more than six people in a social gathering in the two-week period. The governor said this time she is backing up her word with an executive order and a directive to police to issue criminal citations to those who don’t abide.

In addition, restaurants and bars will have to close their doors, and provide only takeout service if they can. Gyms and other fitness outlets are required to close – no exceptions even if customers were following social distancing and other requirements.

The restrictions announced by Brown on Friday triggered an immediate backlash from Oregon’s business community. Leaders said her mandate would cause more businesses to shutter for good and leave more people without jobs. They said the governor is punishing business for the misbehavior of ordinary citizens.

There were other major developments on Friday on the Covid front.

Brown joined governors from Washington and California in asking people not to travel interstate or internationally. They said they would condone “essential” business travel but otherwise asked those returning to their home states or coming for a visit to isolate themselves for 14 days.

And in Idaho, Gov. Brad Little imposed new restrictions on a populace that has largely been free of mandates to wear face masks or socially distance. While still holding off on a mask mandate, Little barred gatherings of more than 10 people and said he was calling on the National Guard to help the state’s beleaguered medical community, overrun by Covid infections.

Brown acted as Oregon for the second day in a row reported more than 1,000 new infections in a single day. The number of people requiring hospital care for Covid has doubled in the state in the past month – and increased 50% in the past week. Portland’s hospital system reported that as of Thursday, the entire region had just 15 spare ICU beds.

The situation wasn’t as dire in Malheur County, but the number of people infected has been steadily climbing in the past three weeks. By Thursday night, six county residents were so sick with the virus they needed to be hospitalized.

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said Friday it was important for local residents to heed the governor’s call.

“We encourage the public to use this time to protect themselves and families and stop the spread in our community,” Poe said. “We each have to act as if we could be infected and take precautions seriously, including avoiding large gatherings, wearing a mask with anyone you don’t live with, answering the call from contact tracers, and staying home when exposed to someone who is sick. It takes our whole society to slow the rates of infection and we need to get through this together.”

DOCUMENT: Gov. Kate Brown press statement

The restrictions Brown unveiled on Friday are in effect from Wednesday, Nov. 18, and lasts through Wednesday, Dec. 2. The new restrictions specify:

• Social gatherings are limited to no more than six people, from no more than two households.

• Restaurants and bars can only provide takeout service. Some restaurants have said they can’t survive on such a limited basis.

• Gyms and other fitness businesses must close.

• Grocery stories and pharmacies are limited to 75% of their capacity and curbside pickup is being encouraged. Other retail stores face the same limit.

• Venues that host events either indoors or outdoors must close.

• Museums and indoor entertainment sites must close.

Businesses are now required to mandate working from home and close their offices to the public.

The governor also said Oregonians should be wearing masks at all times, whether indoors or outside, and take them off only to eat or drink.

“Masks save lives,” Brown said.

State officials have said that informal gatherings, such as birthdays and weddings, have been driving the surge in Covid infections. They say people who aren’t evidently sick who attend such events are unwittingly infecting others at the event, who in turn take the coronavirus to their homes and work places.

Brown essentially scolded Oregonians for not heeding what she said has been months of exhortations to wear masks, maintain 6 feet of distance from others and wash hands. She said she was now “telling” Oregonians to do so, giving up on just asking.

And she said has directed Terri Davie, superintendent of the Oregon State Police, to work with law enforcement agencies in Oregon to “legally enforce the informal social gathering” orders.

She said her new limits would carry the force of law, subjecting violators to a misdemeanor criminal charge. That could mean up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $1,250.

“We have no other option,” Brown told reporters in her Friday briefing.

The new rules don’t change anything with how schools can operate and doesn’t apply to businesses operating under earlier restrictions, such as barbers and hair dressers.

Business groups reacted swiftly and not kindly to the governor’s actions.

“We implore you to pause a moment and consider alternatives to renewed business closures and curtailed operations,” said a letter Friday to Brown from the Coronavirus Recovery Business Coalition. The coalition includes the state’s largest business organizations and associations representing farmers, loggers and bankers.

“We hope you will consider the very real impact such a decision will have on struggling businesses, the employees who may lose their jobs, and our already troubled state economy,” they wrote.

They joined the governor in pointing the finger at individuals.

“Oregonians seem complacent,” the business coalition wrote. “We need Oregonians to embrace their personal responsibility to protest others,” the letter said.

And the Northwest Grocery Association urged Oregonians to wear masks.

“Our store employees have been doing this for months,” the association statement said. “They are protecting themselves, their co-workers and their community and need the same consideration from all customers.”

Almost overshadowed by Brown’s new restrictions was the travel advisory was put out Friday morning by the three governors.

“If you do not need to travel, you shouldn’t,” Brown said in a statement. “This will be hard, especially with Thanksgiving around the corner. But the best way to keep your family safe is to stay close to home.”

The travel advisory applies only to “non-essential” travel.

Brown’s statement defined “essential travel as travel for work and study, critical infrastructure support, economic services and supply chains, health, immediate medical care and safety and security.”

“Persons arriving in Oregon from other states or Oregonians returning from other states or countries could increase the risk” of spreading the virus, Brown said.

Here is the latest detail from the Malheur County Health Department on the coronavirus case counts as of Thursday, Nov. 12. (Enterprise graphic)


Here’s what is behind the state’s move to ‘pause’ a lot of social life in Malheur County

Malheur County, you’re now under new state Covid rules, asking that you cut socializing 

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected].