When Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and her Washington counterpart, Jay Inslee, started issuing executive orders to stop the spread of COVID-19, worried rumors flew around social media in Umatilla that the Interstate 82 bridge over the Columbia River would close.
As deaths from the virus rise in the Tri-Cities area, however, some Umatilla and Hermiston residents have started thinking it wouldn’t be a bad idea to keep possible carriers on the Washington side of the river.
“We are hearing complaints,” Umatilla City Manager David Stockdale said. “The most complaints are from folks who are concerned that they are seeing a lot of Washington plates at the golf course.”
Umatilla County’s case numbers rose to 28 on Tuesday, and the release of the health department’s weekly location trends map showed Hermiston is still the local hotspot with more than 10 confirmed cases, while Umatilla has between five and nine.
Though higher volume of case numbers can be correlated to greater access to testing in the area, Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara said nearly every investigation into a confirmed case has revealed some sort of recent out-of-county travel. The Hermiston-Umatilla area’s proximity to the Tri-Cities has likely played a role in the early trend, Fiumara said.
“We draw these arbitrary lines between counties and states, but the virus doesn’t care which side of the border you’re on or which side you came from,” Fiumara said.
The Benton Franklin Health District has, as of Tuesday afternoon, announced 727 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and 38 deaths in the two Washington counties where Pasco, Richland and Kennewick are located, about 30 miles from the Oregon border.
Stockdale said some community members who have called city hall are worried that Washington residents are bringing COVID-19 into town with them to use the city’s golf course, marina and other facilities. Golf courses are closed in Washington but have been allowed to remain open in Oregon, and while all fishing is banned in Washington, fishing in Oregon has been restricted to in-state residents only.
Stockdale said a bigger worry than visitors might be that many Umatilla residents work in essential services in the Tri-Cities.
“They still commute back and forth, and so we are concerned about that,” he said.
He said the city is doing what it can to limit the spread of COVID-19 among residents, including closing city-owned facilities, such as parks and the library, and working with the school district on encouraging people to stay 6 feet apart when picking up meals and educational packets delivered by school buses.
In response to questions about Umatilla residents’ concerns, the governor’s office sent a statement that residents in both Oregon and Washington need to comply with social distancing requirements and limit all nonessential travel, including crossing state borders for recreational reasons.
“(Brown) is urging everyone in Oregon to limit nonessential travel — especially to our rural communities that do not have the hospital capacity to treat an influx of patients from other parts of the state,” the email said. “In line with her orders, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has closed recreational hunting and fishing to nonresidents to discourage nonresident travel amid COVID-19 restrictions. Such travel could spread the virus and put more of a burden on Oregon’s rural communities.”
But coupled with concerns about recreational and nonessential travel spreading the virus between the two states is the common and essential commutes some workers must make to their workplaces across the border.
In Walla Walla County, health officials have confirmed 37 cases as of Tuesday, eight of which have been linked to a multi-county outbreak at Tyson Fresh Foods in Wallula. The beef production plant has already reported that 90 employees have tested positive.
Fiumara said four people who tested positive in Umatilla County are connected to the outbreak. While that doesn’t mean all four individuals are employees of the plant, it shows the threat of workers bringing COVID-19 back home with them on the other side of the border is real.
However, Milton-Freewater City Manager Linda Hall said citizens on the northeast end of the county have yet to voice concerns about transmission between the states.
“I have not heard any complaints or necessarily any concerns,” she said in a voicemail. “Honestly, we’re so close to Walla Walla that it’s pretty common to have people going back and forth between those state lines.”
Meanwhile, Fiumara and the Umatilla County Health Department have been fielding calls from businesses along the border that have been confused by the information flow between the two states.
While Oregon and Washington are mostly consistent in the businesses restrictions and basic information about the pandemic, one subtle difference does exist — Oregon considers someone recovered from COVID-19 and safe to return to work after spending 72 hours without symptoms, but Washington mandates at least 14 days of self-isolation before being allowed to return to work.
Businesses are under the jurisdiction of whichever state and county they are located in, but the discrepancy has led to employers and employees on either side of the border being unsure of when exactly someone is legally allowed to return to work.
“All we can do is provide them our information,” Fiumara said.
Fiumara highlighted that the threat of COVID-19 spreading between counties on opposite ends of the state border will also pose challenges as governments begin to formulate their plans for reopening economies.
Earlier this week, The Oregonian reported a draft of Brown’s plan will include the option for rural, Eastern Oregon counties to reopen before their more urban counterparts. But whether the restrictions being lifted coincides with counties in Southeast Washington doing the same may be just as important.
“If Umatilla County took the position that we’re going to open the restaurants and bars, how many people are going to come down from Walla Walla or the Tri-Cities area?” Fiumara said. “We could quickly find ourselves in a tough situation.”
Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said conversations about reopening businesses have begun between the board of commissioners and have been pushed to the forefront of statewide discussions among county leaders. He acknowledged the need to consider the risks of cross-county transmission in those discussions.
“I think any county like ours feels good about what people locally are doing,” he said. “It’s the things you can’t control like people coming from the outside that are concerning.”
As Oregon begins rolling out plans to gradually reopen the economy, which Murdock said may start by mid-May, restrictions are expected to start lifting in states like Georgia, Tennessee and Ohio as early as Friday.
So while local challenges emerge in the face of returning to “normal,” at least there may soon be some examples from elsewhere on how to avoid them.
“Just as we have been able to witness worldwide, for better or worse, we will soon be able to get a firsthand look at the consequences of reopening closer to home,” Murdock said.