A county task force charged with responding to the Covid outbreak plan to ask the county to restrict the size of local gatherings this week. (The Enterprise/Yadira Lopez)

ONTARIO – A local Covid task force plans to recommend the county again scale back the size of indoor and outdoor gatherings to counter a significant rise in local cases of the infection.

Sarah Poe, director of the Malheur County Health Department, said the task force will urge the county to limit gatherings to 10 people inside and 25 outside. Now the limit is 50 people indoors and 100 outdoors, though there are some exceptions to that rule for facilities such as churches.

“Our recommendations would not impact churches or restaurants who are able to complying with Phase II (reopening) recommendations,” said Poe.

Poe said the aim is to limit private gatherings.

“I realize we can’t make everybody change, but even a small reduction would certainly help at this time,” said Poe.

The task force – consisting of county and health department personnel – was scheduled to deliver its recommendation to the Malheur County Court on Wednesday, said Poe.

Local Covid cases continue to climb, doubling in a week to 222 reported cases as of Monday, July 6. Six people were hospitalized for treatment of Covid - the highest in the county since the pandemic started. Six others who were hospitalized have been released.

The county’s rate of positive tests has climbed steadily, reaching 10.8% on Monday, double the statewide rate of 5.3%.  

The county’s infection rate is also far above the level the county designated in May as concerning – 5%. The county rate a week ago was about 4%. The increasing rate of positive tests is not the result of just more testing but a spreading virus, according to health authorities.

Covid cases for Malheur County as of Monday, July 6 (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

Malheur County Judge Dan Joyce said Monday that he will wait to review the task force recommendation before deciding on a course forward.

“I don’t know I would do restrictions but I’d make recommendations,” Joyce said Monday.

Poe said the crowd limit is necessary because “at this point I feel the public is not doing their part…If people can’t do it independently, we have to take those steps to keep people safe,” said Poe.

Poe said she isn’t yet considering a local stay-at-home order.

“I want businesses to be open but for that to happen we have to flatten the curve,” said Poe.

Gov. Kate Brown on Friday announced she was putting Malheur County and seven other counties – Jefferson, Lake, Lincoln, Morrow, Umatilla, Union and Wasco – on a state watch list because of a high number of recent Covid cases.

“Analysis by the Oregon Health Authority showed alarmingly high per capita rates of case increases and community spread – cases where the infections are not attributable to a specific location or event,” Brown said in announcing the watch list designation.

She said such community spread is a “serious warning” for the county and warned that if there isn’t a downturn soon, “restrictive measures such as business closures or tighter gathering size limits will ensue.”

Authorities urged people to obey the governor’s new order that everyone must wear a mask when going inside public places such as grocery stores and restaurants. Brown made clear Friday she intended to see her order enforced, pinning her expectations on businesses to not let customers in who aren’t wearing a mask.

Contributing to the soaring number of cases is an outbreak at Brookdale Ontario, an assisted living facility at 1372 S.W. 8th Ave. in Ontario. County officials said testing earlier in the week determined 26 employees and staff were infected.

State records show the facility is licensed for 82 beds.

Heather Luther, Ontario Brookdale executive director, directed the Enterprise to the facility’s corporate parent, Brookdale Senior Living Inc., which declined to answer specific questions about the number of cases, prevention methods and timeline of events.

Brookdale Senior Living is a publicly traded national chain based in Tennessee, which operated and owned 763 senior living facilities across 45 states in 2019. In Oregon, they owned eight facilities, four of which have reported Covid cases. Last year, the company had revenue of $4 billion. 

The company says on its website that it generally follows the guidance of all health authorities, have limited visitors except for end-of-life situations and have “appropriate” supplies.

Meantime, the Snake River Correctional Institution also reported that seven employees and one inmate had tested positive for Covid. The facility, the largest state prison in Oregon, put all inmates in quarantine to prevent the spread of the disease.

New data from the state showed the seriousness of the situation in Malheur County. Last week, it ranked third highest in the state for the rate of infections for its population – and third highest for cases that couldn’t be traced to a source. Such tracing is considered by medical experts crucial to identifying people who don’t realize they are infected and getting them quarantined.

The watch list designation means the state will provide the county with more tests, beef up the health department’s staff of contact tracers and boost education efforts, including signs and posters.

(The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan)

Brown said in her press release that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission and state Occupational Safety and Health Administration worked through the holiday doing checks “to ensure restaurants, bars, and other businesses, and their patrons are complying with state alcohol laws, OLCC rules and the requirement to wear a face covering in indoor public spaces.”

The monitoring process will continue, said Aaron Corvin a public information officer for OSHA.

“Our process doesn’t work like that, say, the state police, where someone is stopped for a speeding violation and immediately ticketed,” said Corvin.

Instead, Corvin said, the initial response from OSHA will be “done by phone or email.”

“Our expectation is that businesses respond to our inquiry honestly and thoughtfully. A failure to respond makes an inspection much more likely,” said Corvin.

Corvin said complaints about individuals not wearing masks or following proper protocols in Malheur County spiked in recent days.

“We had surge of complaints over the weekend that exceeds the complaint volume we’ve had an any week since the two weeks immediately after the ‘stay home/stay safe’ order was issued. We are still processing them, but the majority of them appear to relate to enforcement of the facial coverings requirement,” said Corvin.

Businesses violating the state liquor laws could face citations, fines and even a Red Warning Notice. Such a warning would force the closure of a business until “the hazardous condition is remedied. Violation of Red Warning Notice results in stiff penalties,” the governor’s statement said.

Andy Jurik, OLCC regional manager for central and eastern Oregon, said “our inspectors will be out, some will be ganged up, some single, doing what they normally do.”

The region’s two state lawmakers Friday called for residents to be vigilant and follow social distancing guidelines.

“Our county health departments are working very hard and with limited resources during very difficult times, and we need to do all we can to support them. We need to make uncomfortable adjustments and continue to work together to slow the spread of COVID-19,” said Findley.

State Rep. Mark Owens, R-Burns, said in a statement jointly issued with Findley that “we’re collectively urging our constituents to follow the measures in place this time. Our citizens need to feel safe and be healthy, and our businesses are vulnerable to being shut down again and we won’t make it through another round of closures.”

Owens and Findley represent counties on the governor’s watch list.

“I am really trying to be preventive, so we don’t go into a stay-at-home order, which could happen if our numbers don’t go down,” said Poe.

Poe said the key is for residents to follow social distancing guidelines and to wear a face covering.

“But if people won’t follow the guidelines and have big gatherings, it is just making a stay-at-home order more and more likely to slow the spread,” said Poe.

Number of positive Covid cases since the beginning of June (The Enterprise/Kezia Setyawan).

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