PORTLAND, Ore. — The wait is over for those in Multnomah County waiting to start reopening. On Wednesday afternoon, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced the county could enter Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan on Friday, June 19.
Multnomah County, the most populous in Oregon, is the final county to be approved to enter the first phase of reopening.
The county had long targeted reopening last week, on June 12, but Brown announced the night before that all reopening applications across the state were put hold for a week. Small business owners were angered by Brown’s decision. Many restaurants stocked up on food in preparation for the reopening and other businesses asked employees to return for the planned reopening. But now those businesses can prepare to reopen in two days.
Brown said last week’s decision was made because of the increase of COVID-19 cases across the state. Dr. Jennifer Vines with Multnomah County said Wednesday that the county's hospitalization trend has remained flat since Friday, "so we do meet Phase 1 opening criteria."
During a Thursday news conference, Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said an error was discovered in the reporting of hospitalizations in Multnomah County. The new data shows that the county had 29 hospitalizations in the past two weeks, five more than the previous report indicated.
"This error does not change our recommendation that Multnomah County should proceed with Phase 1 of reopening," Allen said.
Multnomah County's percentage of COVID-19 hospital visits, at 0.6%, has remained "stubbornly low," he said. He also said the county is conducting the most tests among Oregon counties and seeing a relatively low percentage of positive tests. The county is also meeting contact tracing standards, and its hospital capacity — 392 ICU beds and 399 ventilators — is high enough that the region is prepared for an influx of new cases, even though Allen said they've yet to see a new wave form.
When Brown was asked Thursday what changed between last week and her decision Wednesday to let Multnomah County begin the reopening process, she said the pause allowed state health officials to get a closer look at the data to find out why the surge in cases across the state is happening.
"The rise in cases is basically coming from workplace outbreaks — a good example of that is the seafood processing plants on the coast and other agricultural production facilities. We're also seeing a rise in cases in congregate care facilities and assisted living and correction facilities and in social gatherings," Brown said.
The governor said they've also seen that businesses that have opened in other areas of the state that have followed state guidelines have provided a pattern on how to successfully reopen, giving her confidence that businesses in Multnomah County can do the same.
"The businesses that have opened that have implemented strict health and safety standards are, as far as we know, successfully protecting their customers from spreading the virus," she said.
Brown said Thursday that the success of the state's reopening depends on every Oregonian.
"It comes down to you and me. What we do every single day will determine whether our economy can stay open or if we have to go back to the way things were in the spring," she said. "Local businesses will only be able to stay open if each of us do our part. They can only stay open if you stay safe. I'll say that again: Stay safe to stay open."
Brown said that even as counties begin to reopen, residents should still move forward with caution.
"If you’re sick, please stay home. Wear face coverings. Avoid crowds. Maintain 6 feet of physical distance. Limit nonessential travel. Stay in your own community. And wash, wash, wash your hands," she said.
Counties grouped together
As part of the new reopening plan, several counties will now be grouped into regional units for future reopening decisions. Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties will be a unit, and all will go into Phase 2 together when the time comes.
"I don't think this is a surprise to anyone or a surprise to the other counties," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury in a Wednesday afternoon press conference. "We've been working very, very closely together in the tri-county area since the first case, realizing the virus doesn't understand geographic boundaries."
Brown said Thursday it made sense to treat the three counties as one geographic region.
"People don’t stop at the border of Washington County and say, 'I’m not going to that Washington County restaurant because it’s beyond the border.' So we're treating it as a region, and adding the additional requirement of face coverings to make sure fellow Oregonians are protecting neighbors and family members," Brown said.
Marion and Polk counties will also be a unit, and will enter Phase 2 on Friday.
New face mask requirements
The approval by the governor also comes with a mandate that members in the Tri-County region and in Marion, Polk, Lincoln and Hood River counties must use a face covering whenever they are indoors in a space shared by other members of the public. That requirement goes into effect June 24.
"This is not business as usual. We still have to maintain 6 feet of physical distance, wear face coverings and realize the virus is still out there," Kafoury said.
On Thursday, Brown said children under 12 and people with certain health conditions will not have to wear face masks. State health officials also said that businesses will have the right to refuse service to people who aren't wearing masks.
More details on the face mask requirements are expected soon, Brown said.
Multnomah County's reopening plan also includes a specific framework prioritizing the needs of the black community, indigenous community and other communities of color, who are disproportionately impacted by the virus both nationwide and in Multnomah County.
What does Phase 1 look like?
As a reminder, under Phase 1, the following restrictions would be eased:
- Restaurants and bars for sit-down service: Requirements include 6 feet of social distancing; a limit of groups to parties of 10 or fewer; food and drink consumption must end by 10 p.m.; and workers are required to wear masks. See more details on the requirements.
- Barbers, salons and massage businesses: Requirements include social distancing; appointment-only; and a personal protective equipment and customer list. See more details on the requirements.
- Gyms and fitness centers: Requirements include a maximum gathering limit; social distancing; and sanitation. See more details on the requirements.
- In-person gatherings: Up to 25 people, no travel.
After entering Phase 1, the county will need to wait at least 21 days before it is eligible to enter Phase 2.
Thirty-two of Oregon’s 36 counties have entered Phase 2, where they will likely stay through the fall, state health officials said.
Phase 3, which focuses on large gatherings, will not begin until a COVID-19 vaccine or reliable treatment is widely available.