UMATILLA COUNTY — Optimistic of its ability to meet the state’s public health requirements, Umatilla County submitted a plan Monday to begin lifting restrictions of the COVID-19 pandemic and reopening businesses by May 15.
“I think the first step was to make a clear statement of what we wanted to do,” said Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock, who serves as public health liaison for the board of commissioners.
The board of commissioners sent Gov. Kate Brown a copy of their proposal to enter “Phase 1” of the reopening framework she laid out last week, which would allow the county’s bars, restaurants, retailers, salons, barbershops and other personal services to open with accommodation for extra distancing and sanitation protocols.
Schools and playgrounds would remain closed during the first phase, and gatherings of more than 10 people and youth activities would still be prohibited. Visits to hospitals and long-term care facilities would remain restricted, too.
People would be advised to continue practicing social distancing, limiting nonessential travel and working from home whenever possible.
The plan may also spell good news for those who have been missing Harris Park. The county’s only park, which suffered severe damage in February’s flooding, has been restored and could reopen for day use as early as May 1.
The business closures and restrictions from Brown’s stay-at-home order, which has been in place since March 23, have wreaked havoc on Oregon’s economy. According to data released Thursday from the Oregon Employment Department, more than 330,000 Oregonians — about 1 in 6 people — filed new unemployment claims during the first five weeks of the pandemic.
“We are already hearing that while some businesses are beginning to prepare themselves for reopening, others are working on plans to close permanently.” Murdock wrote in an email to public officials in the county Tuesday. “This is tragic and we need to press for ways of reopening in a matter of weeks, if we can clear critical public safety hurdles, which we believe we can.”
The board of commissioners is awaiting word from the governor’s office about its proposed guidelines, but are planning to officially adopt them at a meeting scheduled for 9 a.m. Wednesday.
According to a copy of the proposed guidelines, the county won’t authorize any reopening or lifting of restrictions without the blessing of the state and won’t take any action that conflicts with the state’s protocols.
In a meeting with business leaders on April 22, Brown detailed her “Reopening Oregon” framework, which includes criteria in regard to case numbers, testing capabilities and hospital capacity that local communities must meet in order to start lifting restrictions.
“We’ve received assurances that we’ve met the gating criteria that make it reasonable for us to do that,” Murdock said.
The board of commissioners have consulted Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara and Health Officer Dr. Jon Hitzman in developing their plans, and both have signed off on the proposal.
“At some point, we’ve got to pick a date,” Fiumara said. “The idea is to have something to aim for and something to give the community some hope that it’s not going to be like this all the way into the summer.”
The health department announced eight new confirmed cases Tuesday, bringing the county total to 45. Though eight cases is the largest single-day jump the county has seen since its first case was announced March 2, Fiumara said the day cases are announced isn’t as important as when the individual first began showing symptoms.
That data will be provided in the county’s weekly “epi curve” release on Thursday, which shows the number of confirmed cases that began showing symptoms of the virus on a particular date. For now, Fiumara said more spikes in confirmed cases throughout the week could require him to reevaluate the May 15 target date.
“The data is going to tell us where to go,” he said.
But with a number of Umatilla County cases already linked to out-of-county or out-of-state travel, Fiumara said the possibility of businesses reopening locally before elsewhere in the region and bringing a rush of travelers needs to be considered. Unfortunately, there’s only so much that county officials can do about it.
“It’s a factor, and it’s one that we don’t have much control over,” Fiumara said.
Under Brown’s multiphase plan, Umatilla County would monitor the impact of initially lifting some restrictions for at least 14 days to observe if there’s a surge in local cases before going any further. According to the county’s proposal, the board of commissioners expect it would take longer than the two weeks and the next phase of reopening would likely begin in June.
“We do understand that when we begin to reopen there will be a spike of some kind, but one that we hope will be minor,” Murdock said.
The second phase would include opening schools, gyms and playgrounds, allowing gatherings up to 50 people, and resuming nonessential travel. The third phase, which would increase gathering sizes to 250 people and allow restaurants to offer more seating, isn’t expected to begin until late June or early July, according to the county’s proposal.
But as the plan comes together for gradually reopening the county, the fate of events like Pendleton Whisky Fest, the Umatilla County Fair and Pendleton Round-Up looms large as the summer draws closer.
“We’re bearing down on a time, maybe in a matter of days, where there’s going to have to be decisions made about those major events,” Murdock said.