Baker County officials don’t have a timeline in their effort to persuade Oregon Gov. Kate Brown to further ease restrictions on local businesses and events during the coronavirus pandemic.

But there can be little doubt that the process will be slowed by recent events a mere 40-minute drive on Interstate 84 from Baker City.

Union County, our neighbor to the north, is the site of Oregon’s biggest coronavirus outbreak.

As Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett pointed out Monday evening, a few hours after Union County announced 99 new cases of COVID-19, “we have so much interaction with Union County.” Bennett said a pause in easing restrictions, as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown announced last week, is understandable.

On Tuesday state officials announced 119 more positive tests in Union County.

Baker County, meanwhile, still has had only one confirmed case of the virus. It’s all but certain that more county residents have been, or are, infected. Just 2% of the Baker County’s 16,800 residents have been tested.

The Union County outbreak starkly illustrates the potential for the virus to spread at large gatherings where participants don’t follow social distancing. A state health official said 236 of Union County’s 240 cases are connected to the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City. According to reporting by our sister newspaper, The Observer in La Grande, videos of services at the church show dozens of parishioners gathered around a stage in the church’s parking lot, closer than the 6 feet experts recommend and without wearing face masks, in late April and May.

Under phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, which Baker County started June 6, certain gatherings, including church services, can have up to 250 people — provided they maintain social distancing.

When state officials announced earlier this month that most of Oregon’s 36 counties, including Baker and Union, could begin phase 2, state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said residents should expect that phase 2 restrictions would remain in effect for at least “several months.”

Bennett, who is serving as Baker County’s incident commander during the pandemic, said Monday that the county plans to submit to the governor’s office a proposal for what is, in effect, a “phase 2.5.” That would further ease restrictions, including allowing larger gatherings and, potentially, reducing the social distancing threshold from 6 feet to perhaps 3 feet, in counties that do not have outbreaks.

That’s a reasonable concept.

The key question is when would it be responsible to relax restrictions in certain counties.

Certainly we need to have confidence that phase 2, with its greater flexibility, does not spawn an outbreak. And it’s clear that we’re more likely to avoid such problems if people who attend larger gatherings practice social distancing, proper sanitation and, depending on the venue, wear face masks.

Baker County officials, meanwhile, will continue to work on their intermediate phase proposal for the governor to consider, as they should. Brown has already shown that she and her medical advisers are amenable to reasonable proposals — phase 2 guidelines largely mirror Baker County’s suggestions — that reflect local effects of the virus.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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