A group of county commissioners from across Oregon, including Mark Bennett of Baker County, along with the Association of Oregon Counties and Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association posed a simple, straightforward proposition to Oregon Gov. Kate Brown regarding the stringent restrictions the governor has imposed on businesses in 15 counties, Baker among them.

This group received a written response to its April 27 letter.

Although to describe Brown’s April 29 letter as a “response” is to indulge in a fair amount of charitable exaggeration.

The governor’s letter reads more like a list of platitudes and questionable claims designed to mollify those who dare to question Brown’s decision to, among other things, treat Multnomah County, with a population of more than 820,000, the same as Baker County and its 16,800 residents.

The commissioners’ letter was prompted by Brown’s decision to move those 15 counties to the extreme risk level for the spread of COVID-19 from April 30 through at least May 6. For counties at extreme risk, indoor dining is banned in restaurants and bars, and occupancy in theaters, gyms and fitness centers, along with museums and some other types of businesses, is curtailed so severely that many have no choice but to close temporarily.

The commissioners pointed out in their letter that, after more than a year of dealing with the pandemic, restaurants and bars have proved that they’re capable of operating safely, and that county health officials should be allowed to determine the level of restrictions that are reasonable. “It is no coincidence,” the letter reads, “Oregon has not seen one instance of a super spreader event tied to our hospitality industry.”

Rather than directly address this point in her letter, the governor instead begins by touting Oregon as having “among the lowest COVID-19 case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths in the nation.”

That’s true. But it hardly counts as justification for banning indoor dining in 15 counties. If anything, the opposite is true, since indoor dining has been allowed during much of the pandemic in parts of the state.

Brown goes on, also accurately, to note that cases and hospitalizations have been surging in the state. She writes: “I was presented with data showing two paths Oregon could take: one in which we took no action, or one that required a temporary tightening of restrictions for certain counties but could save roughly 180 Oregonian lives ... Which path would you choose?”

Notwithstanding the latter sentence, with its gratuitous implication that these lowly county officials could hardly understand the level of responsibility the governor labors under, Brown fails to connect the “data” with the ban on indoor dining — which, after all, was a focus of the commissioners’ letter. In a subsequent paragraph she refers to the “scientific modeling that predicted increased deaths and hospitalizations if we didn’t enter Extreme Risk,” but again without offering a scintilla of evidence that banning indoor dining, among the many other restrictions imposed on counties at extreme risk, is a significant vector of the virus. Indeed, what we’ve heard from state and county officials, during the current and previous surges in infections, is that the biggest problems are private social gatherings, not restaurants and bars.

Is the “scientific modeling” the governor cited so sophisticated that it can determine, for instance, how many of those 180 lives will be spared because restaurants and bars in Baker County can’t have indoor dining? Did the computers consider the possibility that people who ordered takeout meals gathered to eat their meals with other people in a setting that was more likely to spread the virus than inside a restaurant, where masks are required and the ventilation system is more effective than in a typical home?

Instead of details, the governor asks that we simply accept that it was a simple matter of imposing restrictions or allowing 180 people to die — that a matter as complex as the individual decisions of a couple million people in 15 counties can be distilled to two concrete, indisputable outcomes.

The governor notes that she worked with the legislature to “secure $20 million in urgent relief funding for Oregon businesses impacted by Extreme Risk.” That will be beneficial to some businesses, although the money is hardly likely to be a panacea for the thousands of businesses affected in 15 of Oregon’s 36 counties.

But again, this misses the point of the commissioners’ letter, which merely asks the governor to justify restrictions that fall so heavily on a specific business sector. It would be much wiser, not to mention fiscally responsible, to save that $20 million for other needs rather than spending it to help businesses that needn’t have been harmed in the first place.

Of course no reasonable person expected the governor, upon reading the commissioners’ letter — along with similar criticisms from other quarters about moving 15 counties to extreme risk — would immediately admit her mistake and reverse the decision.

But it’s perfectly reasonable to expect the governor to answer an earnest question — what evidence shows that banning indoor dining will have a significant benefit in curbing the spread of COVID-19 — with something more concrete than cliché-larded references to Oregon as a “special place” and the “brighter days” to come.

Perhaps the most galling passage in Brown’s letter is this: “As Governor, I chose to save lives ...”

The implication is that people who disagree with her decisions don’t want to save lives. This is patronizing, insulting and patently absurd.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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