It was three city councilors’ first meeting in office on Monday, Jan. 11, and several city residents wasted no time in getting in front of them to encourage the council to do something about the COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the state and enforced by state agencies.
Allen Aichle said he feels for all the business owners struggling right now, some of whom he knows personally.
“We’re looking to our local governments to help this thing along and we’re not going to get this done looking the other way like they’ve done on the federal level and the state level,” he said to applause from audience members.
A man identified as Steve thanked the city for the grants it has partnered with Umatilla County to offer small businesses impacted by COVID-19, but said it was frustrating to live in a state with so many restrictions. He said he wanted to see Oregon open up and “get this thing behind us,” citing South Dakota, Florida and Texas as examples of states he felt were doing things right.
“Right now business owners don’t feel served, they feel strangled, so what is it we can do to open this up?” he asked.
Some present at the meeting asked why Morrow County is able to have indoor dining when restaurants in Umatilla County aren’t.
Based on its lower COVID-19 rates, Morrow County in recent weeks fell under the “high risk” category instead of the “extreme risk” Umatilla County falls under. Restaurants are legally allowed to have indoor dining in “high risk” counties.
Others mentioned the mayor of Sandy, Oregon, as an example of a city leader they said had “opened up” his city.
Mayor Stan Pulliam encouraged restaurants and other closed-down businesses in Sandy to protest state mandates by opening and following the “high risk” instead of “extreme risk” rules on New Year’s Day, despite Clackamas County being classified as extreme risk.
In a Jan. 5 followup post on his Facebook page he noted that he was hearing reports from some participating businesses that they are now “being contacted by the Governor’s enforcement agencies about possible fines and other punishments” and encouraged people to donate to his political action committee, Main Street Mayors, for a legal defense fund.
Some Oregon businesses elsewhere have already been fined. On Tuesday, Jan. 12, Oregon OSHA announced it had fined a Salem gym $126,749 for “willfully continuing to potentially expose employees to the infectious coronavirus disease despite a public health order to limit the capacity to zero for such establishments in ‘extreme risk’ counties.”
City Councilor Roy Barron responded to the group at the Jan. 11 city council meeting by saying while he is tired of the pandemic too, the state COVID-19 mandates that businesses face are not enacted or enforced by the city.
“As a city, we cannot override stuff that’s going on in the state and federal government. That’s just the way it is,” he said. “We appreciate everybody coming here today because you guys are the reason why government runs, absolutely. We’re here to hear you, absolutely. But when there’s something that is out of our control we can’t simply do it.”
During council comments later in the meeting, other councilors expressed similar views, and said while due to the council’s rules they had not engaged in a back-and-forth discussion with the commenters during the public comment period, they had heard their views and would continue to consider how the city might find ways to help.
“We’re not going to solve this thing tonight,” Councilor Rod Hardin said, before encouraging people to speak with Umatilla County officials, since the state’s COVID-19 levels are broken up by county rather than city.