Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday Malheur County will move from the Extreme Risk category to Moderate Risk beginning Friday. (Kezia Setyawan/The Enterprise)

This story has been updated with quotes from two area restaurant owners and Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director.

ONTARIO – Local residents will be able to dine at local restaurants and larger gatherings will be possible after an announcement Tuesday by Gov. Kate Brown.

Brown declared Malheur County and 15 other counties have improved their Covid risk levels.

That means Malheur County, long sitting at extreme risk, will drop to moderate risk beginning Friday.

The new designation means indoor dining will be allowed for bars and restaurants up to 50% capacity. Theaters, museums and other indoor entertainment venues can open to 50% capacity or 100 people, whichever is smaller.

Inside visits at long-term care facilities will be allowed.

Churches and funeral homes can now host indoor gatherings at 50% capacity or no more than 100 people.

“For the second time in a row, we are seeing great progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 across Oregon and saving lives,” said Gov. Brown.

The numbers from the state show the following for the week ending Feb. 22 in Malheur County:

• The rate of infection, calculated per 100,000 population, dropped to 109.3 from 128.

• The county recorded 35 Covid cases, down from 41.

• The positivity rate for the county stood at 3.5%, down from 3.9%.

 “We are excited to get our community back in our doors with smiling faces,” said Malinda Castleberry, owner of Mal’s Diner in Vale.

Across the county in Ontario, Plaza Inn Restaurant owner Jason Jungling said he was pleased with the announcement.

“I think the timing should have happened a long time ago. I really think we surpassed and gone way too long on this,” said Jungling.

Sarah Poe, Malheur County Health Department director, said she was “grateful for everyone’s resilience and patience through such a difficult time in Extreme Risk.”

Poe cited the announcement as an important development but stopped short of calling it a major turning point in the Covid fight.

“With many lives lost just in the last month, and still new cases every day, this is not a victory yet,” said Poe.

Poe said her department offered “thanks to everyone in Malheur County who has worked together to make this change possible.”

“It’s been a long time coming and we applaud this community. We should celebrate this milestone, but we should keep it in perspective,” said Poe.

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