Umatilla County to move back to 'high risk' level

Umatilla County Commission Chair George Murdock

Umatilla County will head back to Oregon’s “high risk” category on Friday, April 30, according to an announcement by Gov. Kate Brown’s office on Tuesday, April 27.

That level of Gov. Kate Brown’s COVID-19 pandemic four-stage recovery plan for Oregon means returning to some reductions. Those include decreasing indoor restaurant capacity to 25%, outdoor social gatherings to eight people and indoor recreation and fitness to 25% occupancy or 50 people, whichever is smaller.

County Commission Chair George Murdock said the move comes after enjoying a number of weeks at moderate risk level, during which time restaurants and small businesses got a modest reprieve from the pandemic.

“Now they have three days to find an outlet for their inventory,” Murdock said.

Umatilla County joins Hood River County in moving from moderate risk back to high risk, becoming part of a group of nine counties in the designation.

Fifteen other counties will move to Oregon’s “extreme risk” level which prohibits all indoor dining and carries other restrictions. Umatilla County moved out of that level on Feb. 26.

Eight Oregon counties, including Union County, will stay at “lower risk” level while four counties will be at the “moderate risk” level.

Murdock said the commissioners have been deeply concerned about the impact on restaurants which continue to be disproportionately “picked on” during the pandemic.

Their complaints to state officials, he lamented, “have mostly fallen on deaf ears. The only bright news is that our weather is getting better and outside dining will be increased from 50 to 100.”

The commission chair did not mince words in this week’s email update.

“We have learned from contact tracing that Umatilla County has a path to getting back to a semblance of normal but almost half of our residents have no will to be involved — at least in terms of getting a vaccination or in some cases wearing a mask, distancing and avoiding gatherings.”

Data shows that nearly all new COVID-19 infections are occurring among people who haven’t started the vaccination process, he pointed out.

“From that point on it is a personal choice as to whether or not we have a better chance of having events like the fair, (Pendleton) Round-Up and Happy Canyon. For a county that is struggling to emerge from an economic disaster, getting a shot is a small price to pay for a $65 million boost to our economy.”

Individual choice does not cancel out community consequences, Murdock added.

While Brown told county commissioners around the state she still hopes for a June opening for Oregon, things are going the wrong way, he said, referring to a New York Times analysis showing Oregon has recently led the nation in the rate of new infections.

“The newest metric is the rate of hospitalization and, as of yesterday, Oregon passed the magic threshold with a 37.4% increase and elimination of the warning week. Metro area hospitals are being asked to delay elective surgeries,” Murdock said.

The governor is also opting to extend the COVID-19 statewide emergency declaration another 60 days, despite pleas from counties to return local control, he said.

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Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

Sheila Hagar has written for the Walla Walla Union-Bulletin since 1998. Sheila covers health, social services and city government in Milton-Freewater, Athena and Weston in the Walla Walla Valley.