Lunches are bagged and ready to distribute as Malheur County schools help feed children kept out of school due to the virus. (Joe Siess/Malheur Enterprise)
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The impacts of the coronavirus sweeping the globe increase daily even in Malheur County despite the lack of any diagnosed cases locally as of Monday.
The changes can be seen in the lifestyle and business of the community, as children are kept out of school, gatherings are canceled, and workers try laboring from home.
Grocers report they continue to be short of toilet paper due to binge-buying by rattled customers, but other goods are getting restocked.
Restaurants and bars now are also operating under new rules – no inside dining. Some are adapting to continue or add delivery and takeout service. Others have decided to close, laying off employees.
Public agencies are shifting to virtual meetings, complying with the guidance from health officials about the need for “social distancing.”
Events are disappearing from local calendars, from local entertainment to the Monday lunch of the Ontario Area Public Chamber of Commerce.
State Sen. Lynn Findley, the Vale Republican, announced Monday that his offices in Vale and at the Capitol in Salem would close to the public.
The Emma Humphrey Library in Vale closed its doors on Monday.
Government officials are bracing for even more changes as Oregon heads into what is expected to be a rapid increase in the number of infected Oregonians. State officials last week estimated up to 75,000 could be infected with COVID-19 if precautions aren’t followed.
Officials locally are urging citizens to do their part – washing hands, covering coughs and staying home when sick.
Malheur County Health Department Director Sarah Poe said the community must not dismiss the gravity of the COVID-19 virus outbreak.
Poe said the county must band together to protect those who face the most danger – the elderly and those with underlying health conditions – from the virus.
“As a community we really have to take this seriously so we can slow this down and protect those who are most vulnerable and that we are not spreading this like wildfire,” said Poe.
She said measures instituted by the governor and by federal authorities are in part to safeguard the American medical system from overload.
“There are some things that are different (about COVID-19 virus). For one, there isn’t any immunity to this in our community so we don’t know how each person will respond to it. We have so many people in our community that do have fragile health. They really require us, as a community, to protect them,” said Poe.
Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said Monday morning the county would declare an emergency to open the way for state and federal help. Twelve counties already have done so.
He said county leadership is taking COVID-19 “very seriously.”
“Those that are concerned about it should follow the protocols set forth by the president and the governor. Let’s not take any chances,” said Joyce.
Findley said he was closing his Vale office “out of an abundance of caution” but that he can still be reached best through his legislative email.
“Our No. 1 focus right now needs to be on the health and safety of our citizens and communities,” Findley said in a statement Monday.
The most significant impact so far has been the closure of every school in the state, ordered by the governor last Friday. In Malheur County, that meant about 5,000 public school kids went home for at least two weeks. They are scheduled to return to class on Wednesday, April 1, but authorities in other states have declared longer closures.
The closures raised a concern about students who rely on schools to provide nutritious meals. To accommodate the change, local school districts Monday started distributing packaged lunches and breakfast. The system varied district by district, with most opting to set up central pick-up points at schools. In Nyssa, bus drivers went on their normal routes, stopping wherever there were kids to drop off meals.
At Grocery Outlet in Ontario, store owners Dale and Jillian Gonzalez started a program Friday to help local families struggling to feed their kids.
“We’re a low-income community so a lot of the kids rely on the Boys and Girls Club and on the schools to eat breakfast and lunch,” Dale Gonzalez said. “When these kids come home they don't have food, so we want to bridge that gap for our community to help them out.”
The couple put out a notice on the store’s Facebook page Friday after school closures were announced. They let families with children know they can call the store or send a message to pick up prepackaged bags of food at their 2670 S.W. Fourth Ave. location.
The bags contain cereal, fruit cups, macaroni and cheese, crackers, breakfast bars and other items.
“Whatever we have left, we’re putting in the bags,” Gonzalez said.
The store otherwise is fully stocked with canned goods, snacks and other foods, but there are no paper products including toilet paper.
“Warehouses are empty too,” he said. “They can only keep enough product to maintain the stores compared to average sales, but average sales are going up.”
Gonzalez said he’s expecting 10 different loads this week and his store should be full of items.
Store hours are staying the same, but management is taking other measures to adjust. They’re not accepting bottles and cans for the time being.
“We’re doing our best to keep everything sanitized,” Gonzalez said, including wiping down registers once every hour, asking employees to use rubber gloves at the register, and spraying down carts with sanitizer.
The bathrooms are closed partly for sanitary reasons and partly because Gonzalez said they don’t have enough toilet paper to keep them open.
“It’s on order, but we’re talking very small quantities compared to what we used to get,” Gonzalez said.
At Ontario Mini Market, owner Angel Perez is running into the same problem.
On a normal day Perez would be able to call up a distributor and order three pallets of toilet paper.
“This time the distributors don’t want to sell,” Perez said. “They have a limit. It’s hard right now to find stuff, everybody’s sold out.”
Perez said his store at 401 S. Oregon St. has run out of other items, too.
Chicken, fish and beans went quick. Corn flour in 50-pound bags was popular, too.
Perez said customers are buying the flour in bulk to make their own corn tortillas at home since pre-packaged tortillas may get moldy after a while.
One thing was baffling Perez.
“Nobody’s shopping for produce,” he said. His shelves are stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables.
You can freeze some of those items, too, and keep them for months, he said.
“A lot of citrus and vegetables have a lot of things that can help the immune system and protect your health,” he added, but when he opened Monday morning he was fielding requests for toilet paper.
Perez said he hasn't decided if he’ll put a cap on the number of items customers can buy. He’s waiting to see what merchandise he receives.
“Right now I can’t say anything until I get our inventory stocked up,” Perez said Monday. “If big businesses are out, imagine us little ones. If we don’t have the items we don’t make any money.”
At Guerrero’s Market in Ontario, 106 S.E. 2nd St., employee Jenny Lopez said there are more customers than usual at the store, but paper products are out.
“We don’t normally sell a lot of that, but there is nothing left,” Lopez said.
In Nyssa, Kyle Adolphson, assistant store manager at the M & W Market, said the store was out of paper products but there was still plenty of food.
Adolphson said the store is trying its best to restock toilet paper and paper products, but warehouses are out too.
Nothing at the M & W Market has changed otherwise, Adolphson said, but the store did add a new checker to help out with the increased traffic.
“Everything’s crazy right now,” Adolphson said. “There are a lot of people coming from other towns because they think we’ll have it (paper products).”
Adolphson said that people from the surrounding area are coming to Nyssa in search of certain products that have been cleaned out from Walmart.
“It is a matter of time and we’ll be empty too,” Adolphson added.
Another impact of the school closures is the sudden need for child care – and it’s hard to come by.
The Treasure Valley Children’s Relief Nursery is closed until the end of the month.
Two preschool locations run by the Malheur Education Service District are also closed.
In Ontario, Giggles and Grace Learning Center is exploring partnering with medical providers to help provide child care for healthcare workers at a location outside of their current sites.
Shawn Reynolds, the center's executive director, is planning to dedicate about a half dozen of their staff to support local healthcare workers with child care due to the public school closures.
The center at 1260 S.W. 8th Ave. remains open but only to families already being served. To limit exposure, Reynolds said the site is encouraging families to keep children home if they can and use the center only if necessary.
“A good portion of our families are in positions that are vital to the community, and must remain through this pandemic, such as the medical, public safety, and social health fields,” Reynolds said.
The center usually cares for about 70 children a day, he added. There were 27 there on Monday, March 16.
State officials ordered sharp limits on visits to nursing homes and other licensed care facilities.
At Pioneer Place in Vale, CEO Tom Hathaway said they are “tightening up visitation.”
“We are also making changes to our meal deliveries to reduce the exposure to residents, stopped having group activities,” he said. “Meal deliveries are staggered to reduce the number of people the dining rooms and they are seated further apart. Of course, everything is sanitized, simple things like meal delivery carts, our salad bar, we just discontinued.”
Hathaway said “these changes are just now getting unrolled so residents haven’t had a chance to experience it yet.”
And on Monday, the Malheur Council on Aging closed its meal sites but said it would expand Meals on Wheels service, delivering frozen meals to any who needed them.
Malheur County Sheriff Brian Wolfe, said that patrol deputies aren’t doing anything different during stops or arrests, but they have been equipped with precautionary equipment.
“If we know we are going to come in contact with a sick person, they are required to use it,” Wolfe said.
Wolfe said that if deputies expect to come in contact with a sick person, they are required to wear coveralls, a mask, shoe covers, gloves, goggles, and use disinfectant wipes.
Wolfe said his office will continue to dispatch deputies to respond to calls in person, however, this could change.
Wolfe said that there are no new procedures implemented in the local jail. Lt. Rachel Reyna, the jail commander, participates in daily afternoon calls arranged by the Oregon State Sheriffs’ Association to keep updated on related issues.
Ontario Police Chief Steven Romero said his agency has public health hazard protocols already in place.
“We are following county, state and federal best practices and a lot of common sense to make sure we risk managing any type of health exposures,” the chief said.
Romero said Ontario police would continue to respond to calls as before that could change if circumstances warrant.
Meantime, the Local Emergency Planning Committee was scheduled to meet on Monday. The committee consists of representatives from city, local and state agencies and medical providers.
“We want to get all of the medical people on the same page,” said Rich Harriman, Malheur County emergency manager.
Harriman said there was no need to open the county’s emergency operations center.
“We will just have to see what our spread looks like. Is it an aggressive spread? Or is it like everywhere – one here, one there?” he said.
However, he said “if it goes crazy” they would open the center.
The emergency services center is a group of emergency service responders and medical personnel that will plan on “addressing things like personal proactive gear,” said Harriman. Harriman said the center would also coordinate the allocation of resources to tackle a widespread emergency.