Staying home saves lives

An overhead sign along Interstate 84 east of Pendleton advises drivers to continue to stay home in an effort to save lives in late April.

Despite some delay, Umatilla and Morrow counties will be back open for business, sort of, starting Friday.

Hours after Gov. Kate Brown announced that 28 other counties were approved to enter Phase 1 of reopening during a press conference Thursday, officials from Umatilla and Morrow counties finally got the go ahead after a frustrating morning.

"It's difficult to express the enormous relief of frustration right now," Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said.

Morrow County Commissioner Melissa Lindsay shared relief that the approval would appease residents who were already voicing dissatisfaction with the delay.

"It's huge," she said. "We could already see that the reaction wasn't going to be good."

The first phase of Brown’s plan allows restaurants, bars, personal service providers and retailers to reopen with modified accommodations specific to each business sector. Restaurants will have to seat parties at least six feet apart, for example, and salons will have to screen customers for symptoms.

Counties were able to begin applying to enter this phase last week but had to show the ability to meet conditions outlined by the state.

Those conditions include declining levels of COVID-19 hospital admissions over a 14-day period, minimum levels of testing and contact tracing capacity, hospital surge capacity, outbreak contingencies and personal protection equipment stocks.

Both counties submitted their respective applications May 8, and Umatilla County officials were confident they'd demonstrated the ability to meet the state's criteria.

During the press conference, Brown had said the state requested additional information from county officials and was working closely with them in hopes of making a public announcement "as soon as possible."

“My job is to make hard decisions, even when they are unpopular,” Brown said. “And when it comes to the health and safety of Oregonians, the buck stops right here.”

Oregon Health Authority Director Pat Allen said the state was specifically seeking additional information about each county's contact tracing.

"We want to make sure we have the appropriate data to make an informed decision and we'll make that decision as quickly as we can," Allen said.

Jefferson County was the only other county that Brown said required additional information before a decision was made, and Marion and Polk counties also weren't approved Thursday and will have their plans reevaluated each week.

Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas counties were the only three counties that have yet to submit an application.

COVID-19 is still circulating throughout the country, including in Umatilla County, where three more cases were confirmed Thursday and two people with the virus remain hospitalized. The county's health department emphasized that people are participating in Phase One activities at their own risk, and those who have symptoms of illness, are over the age of 60 or have underlying health conditions should continue to stay home. Those who don't follow those categories should reduce nonessential contact with others stay six feet away from anyone not in their household.

This is a developing story and will be updated.

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