With three of Baker County’s signature events already canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic — Sumpter’s flea market and the Huntington Lions Catfish Derby during Memorial Day weekend, and the Hells Canyon Motorcycle Rally in Baker City in early July — Gov. Kate Brown needs to approve Baker County’s economic reopening plan sooner than May 15.

That’s the date the governor cited as a target for potentially allowing counties such as Baker, which have been lightly affected so far by the virus itself, if at all, to begin to reopen restaurants and some other businesses closed since mid-March.

But our economy needs immediate help.

Businesses have already suffered significantly — more than 550 county residents have filed for unemployment benefits over the past seven weeks. And now the summer tourist season, which is so vital to many businesses, seems certain to be less of a boon that it usually is. It could be disastrously slow.

Restaurants, bars, beauty salons and other businesses need to be able to welcome back customers as soon as possible.

This isn’t about pretending the virus is no longer a threat and rushing forward irresponsibly.

The county’s reopening plan certainly does not — indeed, it proposes the sort of measured approach that Brown has advocated, with specific statistical guidelines, such as a rash of confirmed cases, that could put a halt to the reopening schedule.

But there’s no reason the governor shouldn’t allow the county to start the clock moving on its plan now. The county submitted the proposal on April 24. If the governor waits until May 15 to approve it, the county likely wouldn’t reach the second phase of the plan — a vital step because it would allow bars and restaurants to reopen, albeit with 50% of their regular seating capacities — until up to two weeks later. That pushes the reopening until the cusp of June.

Baker County remains without a confirmed case of the virus. That doesn’t mean nobody in the county is infected, or has been — indeed that’s unlikely given how rapidly it can spread, and the relatively low number of residents who have been tested (81, as of Monday). But it’s indisputable that the virus has not run rampant through the county’s residents. Moreover — and perhaps equally important based on the governor’s criteria for reopening the economy — the pandemic has not overwhelmed the county’s medical and emergency resources.

Quite the opposite, in fact — Saint Alphonsus Medical Center in Baker City has had so few patients to treat that it has had to reduce its workforce.

Baker County is ready to begin reopening its economy, under a thorough plan that’s responsible and that ensures the county won’t sacrifice residents’ health.

But right now the threat the virus poses to our health is largely, if not wholly, hypothetical. And there’s no reason to believe we aren’t well-prepared to deal effectively and rapidly with the virus when — it’s probably not realistic to say it’s a matter of “if” — its presence is confirmed here.

The damage that’s been done to our economy, however, is real, as tangible as a bill arriving in the mail.

Brown, to her credit, has acknowledged that the situation is quite different in many rural counties than in urban areas, and that she intends to treat them accordingly.

Now she needs to prove that by acting decisively and quickly.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

(1) comment

Dan Collins

Age shapes perspective. Since I'm in the over 60 high risk group, the talk of opening too soon makes us nervous. I completely understand the economic picture. But you're in a boat with several billion other people. Are we going to use American exceptionalism yet again?

You cannot preach to people who are not willing to listen. The best I can do is wish everyone well in this. Because the threat of a second wave of this is all but certain...

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