Bill Harvey, Baker County Commission chairman, wants both his 85-year-old mother and his teenage grandson to be able to use the Baker High School track without feeling guilty for breaking rules.
The rules, in this case, are posted on signs at the track asking visitors to “respect guidance relative to the efforts to curb the spread of COVID-19 and in relation to social distancing.”
The black lettering backed in red proclaims notice of a temporary order: “Play structures and school grounds closed until further notice by governor’s executive order 20-12.”
The notice continues “all sport and community group practices and games are cancelled. All athletic fields and outdoor spaces are closed to programmed and permitted uses.”
Harvey says he doesn’t understand how any of that relates to people walking on a track that many community residents helped pay to build. He believes the track should be available to the public as a safe way to get fresh air and to exercise as has been encouraged by Gov. Kate Brown as well as city and county officials.
Harvey says he visits the area daily because his mother lives across the street from the track. She walks short distances on it frequently and it provides a safe alternative to walking in the streets for her and other older adults as well as people with young children.
“It’s a beautiful track, a beautiful place to walk and a safe place,” he said.
Harvey said he’s planning to start walking on the track and he’s encouraging everyone he knows to walk on it.
Not all schools in the area have interpreted state restrictions in the same way.
The La Grande School District, for example, has not closed its track to the public, said Joseph Waite, the District’s facilities and maintenance director.
“I have had no instruction to close it or to put up any signage on the track,” Waite said.
He says he drives by the track frequently and there are usually people walking on it, including couples walking together and those who walk individually. Seldom does he see more than five people at a time on the track, he said.
Harvey first took his concerns to Baker School District Superintendent Mark Witty, who later referred Harvey to Chris Hawkins, Baker School Board chairman.
After several email conversations with Hawkins and still no action, Harvey said he called Shannon McKone of Elkhorn Media Group radio station.
On Friday, Hawkins issued a response to McKone and the email later was forwarded by request from the School District Office to the Herald.
Hawkins’ letter stated that the District “has closed its athletic facilities as required by the Oregon School Activities Association (OSAA) and in compliance with the Governor’s executive order.”
Hawkins said he understands how frustrating it must be for those who live near facilities such as city and county parks, the Baker Sports Complex and community businesses they are used to frequenting.
He stated, however, that violating the OSAA restrictions could put the District “at risk of being penalized therefore negatively affecting our students involved in OSAA activities.”
“Our students are our priority, they have been through a lot this year and we hope our community can support our position with the closure of the high school track, ” Hawkins stated.
In an email to the Herald, Peter Weber, OSAA executive director, stated that “the OSAA Executive Board, in alignment with the Governor’s Executive Orders, has instructed member schools to close their athletic facilities.”
He said there is no expectation for schools to monitor public compliance at all facilities, adding that “we’ve had a good response from schools in following the order.”
“As for the risk of being penalized, certainly that’s not our goal in putting out this guidance,” Weber said. “Ultimately our Executive Board does have authority to penalize schools but our intent is for schools to abide by the directives until such time that the Governor and the Oregon Health Authority permit opening things back up again.”
Hawkins said the news Tuesday that the governor was allowing the limited reopening of some state parks, outdoor recreation and day-use areas in the state could make the issue a moot point in the coming days.
He said if phase 1 of the county’s economic reopening plan is allowed to proceed on May 15, the school district will be awaiting further instruction from OSAA and the governor as well.
“And we’ll be back to some kind of normal and can take the signs down,” Hawkins said.
But in the meantime, he said: “We’re asking that folks abide by the closure.”