Mark Bennett references a roller coaster, while Tyler Brown’s favored metaphor is the yo-yo, but both are concerned about fluctuating restrictions in Baker County due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting effects on local businesses.
Bennett, a Baker County commissioner and the county’s incident commander during the pandemic since its onset 10 months ago, said on Monday, Jan. 11 that it appears the county has had too many new virus cases over the past two weeks, and potentially too high of a test positivity rate, to remain in the high-risk category.
If the county moves from that category to the extreme-risk level starting Friday, Jan. 15, restaurants, bars and fitness centers, which had been able to operate at limited capacity since Jan. 1, would have to close or, in the case of restaurants, revert to takeout or outdoor dining.
Brown owns two of those businesses, Barley Brown’s Brew Pub, and Tap House.
Brown said Monday that moving back from the high-risk category to extreme would not only cut into his potential business, but also force him to reduce his workforce just two weeks after he was able to rehire several employees.
“It’s incredibly frustrating for us as operators, but it’s just as frustrating for the employees,” Brown said.
He said that on Saturday, Jan. 9, his brew pub, despite being limited to no more than 50 people including employees and customers, did a steady business.
He had 10 employees working that day.
But Brown said that if the county returns to the extreme-risk category and is limited to takeout meals — as was the case in Baker County from Dec. 3-31 — he’ll only need three to four employees.
As a county with a population between 15,000 and 30,000 (Baker County has about 16,800 residents), Baker will be in the extreme-risk category if it exceeds either of two measurements:
• a test positivity rate of 10% or higher during a two-week measuring period
• 60 or more new cases over the two-week measuring period
The county’s risk level, for Jan. 15-28, will be decided based on COVID-19 figures from Dec. 27 through Jan. 9.
Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, said on Monday morning that she tallied 87 new cases during that two-week period.
That includes 25 cases among inmates at the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City. Those cases aren’t counted toward the county’s total if the inmate infections would push the county into a higher risk category.
But even after deducting the Powder River cases, the county’s two-week total remains above the threshold for the extreme-risk designation, Staten said.
Bennett also said that the county’s test positivity rate likely will exceed 10% for the period.
Based on data from the Oregon Health Authority (OHA), the county’s positivity rate was 15.7% from Dec. 27 through Jan. 9.
However, neither Bennett nor Staten could confirm whether those totals included test results from the free testing clinic that happened Jan. 6 in Baker City.
Staten said 86 county residents were tested during the five-hour event, and two of those tested positive.
But even if those results were not included in the OHA total they wouldn’t drop the county’s positivity rate below 10% for the measurement period.
Bennett said he has asked officials in Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s office to consider changing the standards so that Baker County, despite likely exceeding the thresholds by small margins, doesn’t move back to the extreme-risk level just two weeks after moving down.
Bennett said the only response he has received from the state is that there is no provision in the current regulations to allow an exemption.
Staten, along with public health administrators in five other rural counties, recently sent a letter to the state asking to make the high-risk category the highest level of restrictions, which would mean restaurants could continue to have limited indoor dining, and fitness centers and museums could also open with occupancy limits.
Staten said state officials have not made any decision about the administrators’ request.
Bennett said he believes it’s “too hard” on county businesses to shift from one set of restrictions to another every two weeks.
“It’s total chaos in the hospitality industry,” Bennett said. “And that’s too mild a term for what it’s causing.”
Planning to operate a restaurant, including buying food and scheduling employees, is difficult, he said, when one day you serve diners inside and the next you’re limited to takeout.
“We don’t operate like a light switch,” Brown said.