Malheur County among counties at ‘extreme risk’ of virus spread as governor extends restrictions

These are the factors that state officials will consider in assessing the risk and which restrictions will apply in Malheur County and other counties. The new framework was announced Wednesday by Gov. Kate Brown. (Oregon Health Authority chart)

Saying the pandemic situation in Oregon is “extremely dire,” Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday announced that most counties will continue under restrictions through December that limit social gatherings, retailer foot traffic, and restaurant operations but will allow outdoor dining starting next week.

She included Malheur County in a group of 21 counties at “extreme risk” of the spreading coronavirus. Those counties will face modified versions of the regulations that had been set to expire next week.

Brown and state health authorities unveiled the new plan as Oregonians prepared to close offices and head into the Thanksgiving holiday. The governor again implored Oregonians to limit their gatherings to help stem a virus that is infecting 1,000 people a day and on Wednesday was cited as responsible for 20 more virus-related deaths.

“Covid-19 is rampant in our communities,” Brown said.

Malheur County officials said they already are doing all they can to stem the spread of the virus.

“I think it is just following the existing guidance that is there,” said Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department. “People don’t take it seriously until it impacts them closely. And we don’t want people to get to that point.”

“We’ve done everything we have been asked to do. What else can you do?” said Dan Joyce, Malheur County judge.

 In an hour-long virtual briefing with reporters, Brown and health officials laid out a stark course ahead for Oregon in the coming weeks. They said the only salvation for the state is for Oregonians to act personally to follow health protocols and avoid large holiday gatherings.

Dr. David Zonies, ICU medical director at Oregon Science and Health University in Portland, said that besides his Oregon practice, he has served in the military in Afghanistan. He told of hospitals being strained by growing numbers of Covid patients and the trouble finding enough doctors and nurses to care for those patients.

He said the medical community was asking Oregonians to sacrifice now to stem the surging caseloads.

“Please hold out a little longer,” Zonies said. “Please be a patriot. Please make smart decisions.”

Brown took aim at those who don’t believe the virus is a public health threat.

“When people don’t respect how serious this virus is, and when they act against the recommendations of doctors and public health experts, not only are they putting themselves at risk – they’re putting all of us at risk,” the governor said.

Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said Covid is taking a toll on Oregonians beyond those needing medical care.

“It’s stolen their livelihoods, their homes or their emotional well-being without ever having attacked their bodies,” Allen said.

He said the new rules are intended to blend precaution and pragmatism.

“A healthy community is necessary for a healthy economy,” he said.

The Brown plan looks much like what people in Malheur County have lived under since Nov. 18, the start of what the governor had described as a “pause” in community and business activity.

She had limited restaurants and bars to takeout or delivery. Beginning Friday, Dec. 4, restaurants and bars statewide can host up to 50 people for outdoor dining, with no more than six at a table.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon public health officer, said at the briefing that outdoor dining didn’t mean that restaurants could feed people in temporary structures such as tents. He said such structures could be even more prone to spreading the virus.

In counties considered at extreme risk, the governor will continue to limit social gatherings to no more than six people, preferably from no more than two households.

Churches will be allowed to resume services, limited to 25% of a building’s capacity or 100 people indoors, whichever is smaller. Under the earlier rules, churches were limited to 25 people indoors or 50 people outside.

Brown is also encouraging retailers, grocers and pharmacies to switch to curbside pick-up for goods. They otherwise will have to limit people inside to 50% of a building’s capacity, usually defined by the square footage of the space. That’s down from 75% limit set during the pause.

The governor is giving counties an opening to live under fewer restrictions by bringing down Covid cases and infection rates. The governor categorized counties by risk: extreme, high, moderate and low. 

 Indoor dining, for example, would be possible in counties rated at high risk or lower. Fifteen counties, mostly rural eastern Oregon locales, would be allowed to make that move at the end of next week.

“The framework is intended to establish sustainable protection measures for Oregonians in counties with rapid spread of Covid-19 while balancing the economic needs of families and businesses in the absence of a federal aid package,” Brown said in a prepared statement Wednesday afternoon.

The governor’s new measures for business and social gatherings closely follow those already being used by Oregon’s school districts to pick how local students can be educated. The key measures are the rate of Covid cases per 100,000 people, and the percentage of Covid tests turning up positive – all over a 14-day period. The case rate will put most counties into the high-risk category.

Based on the most recent data, Malheur County had 718 cases per 100,000 population – a formula used to treat all counties equally – and had a positive testing rate of 20%. Counties with a rate of 200 per 100,000 are in the high-risk category and the benchmark positive testing rate to be considered high risk is 10%.

On Wednesday, Malheur County reported 2,358 Covid cases and a weekly positive testing rate of 32%.

So far, 38 deaths have been linked to Covid in the county.

Gov. Kate Brown issued the initial statewide pause Nov. 13 and it began Nov. 18.

The “pause” limited private social events to no more than six people and required bars and restaurants to offer only takeout service. Gyms and other venues – such as museums – were also closed as part of the statewide pause.

The new restrictions were slated to last at least two weeks.

At least initially it didn’t look like those restrictions otherwise would hit Malheur County business. That’s because local merchants were still allowed to open and required to ensure customers and workers wear masks and practice social distancing – steps most businesses are taking.

The initial state order limited retailers to no more than 75% of the people legally allowed in their business. Employers were also required to have employees work from home as much as possible and masking mandates inside the office.

Brown said she would direct police to enforce the new limits – including private gatherings – and under her order a violator can be charged with a misdemeanor punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a fine up to $1,250.

New restrictions will vary from county to county depending on the risk for Covid spread, according to state officials. Malheur County is included in the “extreme risk” category and the rules that apply are listed in the far right column. (Oregon Health Authority chart)

Reporter Pat Caldwell contributed to this report.

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


READ FOR YOURSELF: Full text of Gov. Kate Brown’s remarks

TEXT: This is the text of Gov. Kate Brown’s statement on Wednesday, Nov. 25, explaining why she is imposing new restrictions for Oregonians to control the coronavirus

READ FOR YOURSELF: Full text of pandemic remarks by Oregon Health Authority director

TEXT: This is the prepared text of remarks by Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, who spoke of the impacts of the pandemic on Oregonians beyond medical care.

READ FOR YOURSELF: Full text of remarks by OHSU doctor on Covid care

TEXT: This is the text of remarks on Wednesday, Nov. 25, by Dr. David Zonies of Oregon Health and Science University about the urgency of containing the virus in Oregon.

GET YOUR LOCAL NEWS FROM PROFESSIONALS: Reader support allows the Enterprise to provide in-depth, accurate reporting that otherwise would not get done. Keeping the community well informed is essential. SUBSCRIBE – $5 a month, automatically. DONATE – to provide additional support.