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Umatilla County rolling back to baseline COVID-19 restrictions starting Friday

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Kate Brown

Gov. Kate Brown speaks at a news conference in March. In her latest decision, Umatilla County will move back to the state's baseline pandemic restrictions starting Friday at noon.

Umatilla County is going back to baseline pandemic restrictions with the dubious distinction of having the most COVID-19 cases per capita of any county in Oregon.

Unlike the last time the county was poised for a rollback, there won’t likely be any chance of changing Gov. Kate Brown’s mind.

“We will not be able to walk this one back like the last time,” Umatilla County Commission chair John Shafer said via email Thursday evening.

Brown notified commissioners ahead of her own announcement Thursday night. The change is effective today at noon.

However, due to the short notice, restaurants will be permitted to offer physically distanced outdoor dining through Sunday, Umatilla Public Health announced this morning. The change was confirmed by Brown to the agency, a post on the public health department’s social media page said.

The county has been in Phase 2 of Brown’s Stay Home, Save Lives order. Her decision takes it back two steps to the base, where restaurants operate through takeout or delivery only and gyms, salons and barber shops are closed.

The move will also close swimming pools and playgrounds, entertainment facilities and personal services. Indoor and outdoor social gatherings will be limited to a maximum crowd size of 10 people.

Under the baseline phase, grocery stores, retail pharmacies, banks and credit unions, and gas stations can operate.

In addition to Umatilla’s change, Morrow County will move back to Phase I status, with the same effect day and time.

“COVID-19 has spread dramatically in both Umatilla and Morrow counties for the past month,” Brown said in her announcement. “My heart goes out to the families in Morrow County, Umatilla County and the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation who have been impacted by the disease.”

In her letter to the commissioners she acknowledged the move is a “dramatic step.” But she said the data supports the bold move.

“If we do not act immediately, we could see the virus spread even more rapidly, infecting and killing more community members,” she said. “I know that this is difficult news for business owners and working families in the region.”

Brown was poised to roll the county back to Phase I just one week ago but had a change of heart after Shafer pointed out the county was seeing an overall drop in the daily numbers of residents with active cases, a fact he attributed to the use of face coverings.

He was convinced with more time the numbers would go down.

Brown offered several data points around the county’s cases, which stood Thursday at 234 per 10,000 people.

She noted the county has a weekly test positivity rate of 23%, which is far above the state average, the announcement said.

In the last two weeks the county has reported an average of 51 new cases per day. About 45% of the cases in Umatilla County in the last week are sporadic and can’t be traced to a known source.

The move to the baseline phase is expected to run 21 days. Cases and data will be reviewed on a weekly basis.

The Oregon Health Authority provided seven case investigators and 29 contact tracers to Umatilla County on June 26 and has continued to support the area with staff.

“After weeks of trying other measures to get the disease under control, our only option is to temporarily close certain businesses and other community amenities,” Brown said. “I am hopeful these measures will help the community control the spread of COVID-19 quickly.”

Umatilla County Public Health on Thursday reported the 21st death of a resident from COVID-19.

The person was identified as a 78-year-old male with underlying health conditions.

The man tested positive July 10 and died July 28 at Good Samaritan Health Care Center in Yakima.

The agency reported 50 new positive cases of the coronavirus. Still the numbers were different than those coming out of Oregon Health Authority, which reported Umatilla County as having the state’s highest spike of the day with 101 cases.

Discrepancies in numbers have been attributed to data delays.

The Oregon Health Authority also tallied the number of deaths in Umatilla County at 22, but information about the remaining victim was not detailed.

According to the state agency, Umatilla County has had 1,902 positive cases and 8,562 negative tests.

Data from the county health department, however, listed the total case numbers at 1,830 confirmed and 99 presumptive, meaning residents are showing symptoms and have had close contact with a confirmed case but have not had positive tests confirming the virus.

According to the county, 14 residents were hospitalized of the 328 active cases Thursday.

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Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.