Umatilla County Commission Chair John Shafer


Umatilla County commissioners in a letter Wednesday joined numerous county commissioners, state legislators and representatives in asking Oregon Gov. Kate Brown for a more nuanced approach to her “two week freeze.”

Brown’s statewide order began Wednesday. It moves businesses, recreation and other activities back closer to her original stay-home order in March.

Announced Friday, the restrictions laid out by state health officials and the governor are intended to put brakes to the rapidly accelerating COVID-19 cases counts and deaths around Oregon.

Every county is in the freeze for at least two weeks and Multnomah County for four weeks. Brown said if this action doesn’t work to curb the coronavirus activity, more stringent measures will be coming.

Nearly 50 officials asked her to reconsider her one-size-fits-all approach to shutting down the state.

While that move was “logical and appropriate in March” in early in the pandemic when little was known about the virus, keeping counties and regions in Phase 2 of reopening the state for an indefinite period no longer works, the writers said.

Especially not for rural, semi-rural, eastern and frontier communities, they said.

Umatilla County Commission Chair John Shafer said Wednesday afternoon that local COVID-19 cases are not stemming from food and beverage settings.

“Yet those are the businesses being hit the hardest by this latest freeze,” he said. “One size does not fit all for the counties in Oregon. What works in Multnomah County, may not be the solution in Umatilla County.”

He added he signed the letter to support small businesses in the county.

As one voice, the authors of the letter to Brown pleaded for a broader perspective than what she and Oregon Health Authority officials are using to decide what gets restricted.

“We have shut down for months, we have met the metrics required, we have followed the goal posts as they’ve moved, we’ve adhered to the rules, we have slowed the spread — and yet, our counties, communities, small businesses, K-12 schools, childcare and colleges, health departments and more, sit in a stale and stagnant state without forward progress,” the letter states.

The signers said they have done much and will do more to slow the spread of COVID-19, but border counties — such as Umatilla — are directly affected by decisions and actions from outside Oregon.

“This is not a sustainable position,” they said.

The letter tells Brown case counts are not a reliable indicator of the virus situation, and that the most important measurement is hospital capacity and availability of care providers in the community.

Those must be the benchmarks going forward, the writers said. “We have met this goal from the onset and continue to meet this goal.”

The statewide limitations in place are disproportionately affecting women, single-parent homes, students, families and businesses, the letter states.

The signers proposed four areas of change in Wednesday’s message to Brown, as follows:

  • Restaurants and bars: Those must stay open — data from Oregon Health Authority does not indicate those are a cause of increased cases. As well, the industry employs tens of thousands of people. Restaurants and bars need to be able to stay open longer and expand indoor seating capacity.

“We are at risk for nearly 40% of our remaining businesses closing in the next six months if we do not allow for reasonable expansion of these services and industries.

  • Schools: Schools need to be allowed to fully re-open for in-classroom learning and students allowed to participate in extracurricular activities. All who want to return to in-person learning should be allowed to do so, while all who want to continue distance learning also allowed that option.

“If it is safe for college athletes to return to sports, assuredly it is safe for high school students. Parents need to be able to return to work, and our students and teachers need the stability of the classroom.”

  • State agencies: Agencies, specifically motor vehicle departments, across the state are essential.

“These agencies are funded with public dollars and our public needs full access to these essential services.”

  • Religious institutions: Release churches and places of worship from attendance restrictions.

“While outliers will exist as the exception, most churches and places of worship will be and have been more than scrupulous in protecting their congregations from harm from COVID-19. Give pastors, religious leaders and governing boards the latitude to exercise their best judgement for safety.”

The past eight months have been extremely difficult, but the future of the pandemic looks to be even longer, according to the letter. More shutdown is not the answer, it reiterated, and the current one is causing devastation in the lives of Oregonians.

The authors asked Brown to consider a more realistic approach that allows for “freedom, safety and sustainability” and to empower local public health administrators to make decisions with elected officials and state health staff.

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.