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Multnomah County leaves 'high risk' COVID restrictions, maybe forever

On Thursday, Oregon's most populous county moved to "lower risk" restrictions – and will likely stay there until all COVID-19 restrictions are dropped.

PORTLAND, Oregon — Multnomah County moved into the state's lowest risk level Thursday, and there's are probably few people more excited than those working in the restaurant industry. 

The county dropped from “high risk” down to "lower risk," the lowest of the state's four COVID-19 risk levels, after 65% of Multnomah County residents 16 and older were vaccinated with at least one COVID shot. 

Starting Thursday, restaurants in the county can have up to 50% capacity indoors and outdoors with no upper limit on the number of customers. That means a restaurant that can hold 400 people could have as many as 200 inside under the new rules.

It's a big change from the restrictions in place through Wednesday, which limited the number of people to 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever was fewer.

Jason Brandt, CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the new, looser restrictions are not expected to change.

“This is better for Multnomah County than just getting into lower risk," he said. "They are locked into lower risk at 50% without total person caps for the amount of people on site. And they get to stay there until the risk categories are gone entirely. So that’s great news for the operators in the county."

RELATED: Multnomah County approved to move to lower risk level Thursday

Brandt said some restaurants are already seeing as much business as they can handle and are now looking for more employees.

Also on Thursday, restrictions for indoor recreation, gyms and other facilities moved from a limit of 25% or 50 people to a limit of 50% capacity. The same changes went into effect for theaters and concert halls. 

Retail stores are now allowed up to 75% of their maximum capacity, up from the 50% capacity limit under high risk restrictions.

But Thursday's move does not come without warnings.

Multnomah County's public health department issued an advisory urging everyone, vaccinated and not, to keep wearing masks indoors.

The department said that despite the CDC's guidance saying masks are not needed for those fully vaccinated in most places, and despite Gov. Brown's assurance that Oregon would follow the CDC guidelines.

Multnomah County Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey said she thinks it will make a difference in the spread of the virus.

“I would not recommend something like this if I didn’t think it made a difference," she said. "We have seen physical distancing and face covers and masks play an absolutely crucial role leading up to the vaccinations."

KGW's Pat Dooris asked, “But if it's people that are fully vaccinated who are not wearing masks, what difference would it make if they are wearing masks?"

She replied, “It's more about trying to determine who is vaccinated and who is not in an indoor setting."

Guernsey said it was too hard for businesses to check to see who is vaccinated or not. But it’s one more bit of confusion in an already complex web of rules and regulations that are different in various counties.

This statewide map shows high risk counties in the orange, moderate risk counties in yellow and lower risk counties in green. There are different restrictions for each risk level.

Credit: Alison Rodgers

Miles Eshaia from the grocery workers union UFCW 555 said more confusion is bad because it can lead to confrontation between workers and customers.

“The most important thing to remember is we in Oregon need solid and consistent guidelines. So right now we have the CDC and OHA, counties and store policies and there's not really an official bottom line,” he said.

Confusion or not, Multnomah County now has the least COVID restrictions it has seen in a long time. And many will greet the day and hope it is the beginning of the end of all the danger from the virus and the restrictions as well.

Have a comment or question for Pat? Email him at pdooris@kgw.com

RELATED: Conservative group threatens to sue over Oregon's new mask rules