Public health officials in six rural Oregon counties urged the state to ease certain Covid restrictions in a recent letter. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

ONTARIO – Malheur County has joined five others to ask the state to ease Covid-related business restrictions so that local restaurants could again provide indoor dining and stores could allow more people to shop.

The letter to Rachael Banks, the director of the Public Health Division of the Oregon Health Authority, urges special consideration be given to the Covid risks in in rural areas of Oregon.

The state uses four categories – lower, moderate, high and extreme risk – to rate the spread of Covid in a specific county.

Signed by health administrators from Baker, Grant, Harney, Klamath, Lake and Malheur counties, the letter asked to step down the risk level in the area to high risk.

Malheur County is now designated at extreme risk for the spread of the coronavirus. That means no indoor dining - only takeout is allowed -  and a limit of 50 people in outdoor food venues.

Only six people per party are allowed at an outside table under the extreme risk mandate.

Moving to one risk level lower, Malheur County could allow indoor dining with up to 50 people. The high risk category allows outdoor dining with a maximum of 75 people.

Indoor and outdoor dining is limited to six people per party.

A county falls into the extreme risk classification when it records 60 or more Covid cases over a 14-day period.

Under the high-risk banner, a county logs 45 to 59 Covid cases – with substantial spread of the virus - over a 14-day period.

The letter asks the state to allow local health departments to “enact the extreme risk framework when appropriate.”

According to the letter, the extreme risk level is hurting small businesses such as restaurants.

 “No matter if you are a small café in Juntura, more than 70 miles from Ontario, the population center of Malheur County, the impact of the extreme risk category threatens to put you out of business. Malheur County has 204 cases over two weeks over 10,000 square miles.”

The letter describes business that “have lost nearly everything and they are pleading with our health departments to allow them to open carefully under significantly reduced capacity.”

A change to high risk would be modest but crucial, said Sara Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

“The higher risk is still a lot of restrictions. It is not just opening things up. But it is something,” said Poe.

Poe said the letter is “based on facts.”

“My team doesn’t believe restaurants opening up to 25 percent capacity will result in massive outbreaks as long as they follow the guidance,” said Poe.

According to the letter, “our geographic areas are affected by COVID-19 restrictions differently than more urban areas. While COVID-19 has brought hardship to our whole state, the sweeping impact of the ‘extreme risk’ category for 80% of counties has significantly different implications in rural counties than in more densely populated ones.”

The letter said the rural nature of the six counties also plays a key role in how the state measures Covid severity.

“While Grant, Harney and Lake counties are currently avoiding the extreme risk category, we are concerned that because of such low populations, a small number of cases would catapult the incidence rate. While the counties could effectively respond to more cases, the result would be that they could be in the extreme risk category quickly, even with just a large single family or small business outbreak.”

Previous coverage:

State statistics show Malheur County lags in key Covid benchmarks

Different methods by Oregon and Idaho to fight Covid highlight the challenge of suppressing the virus

Malheur County sees Covid numbers worsen, state ready to step in

SUPPORT OUR VITAL LOCAL WORK: We provide Malheur County the local journalism that searches out the facts for you. SUBSCRIBE FOR $5/month. Click HERE.  

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]