Many businesses in Baker County and elsewhere in Oregon have suffered from incessant uncertainty for more than a year due to the pandemic, and it’s time for Gov. Kate Brown to relieve some of that onerous burden.

The governor needs to replace, or at least to change, the two-week COVID-19 risk level system that’s been in place for almost four months.

Mark Bennett, a Baker County commissioner, said problems with the system are a common topic when he talks with business owners. Most notably, because risk levels can change every two weeks — and potentially change dramatically — business owners can’t reasonably predict such basic, and crucial, elements as how many employees they’ll need to schedule, and the volume of supplies they’ll need to order. This is particularly problematic for restaurants, which use so many perishable items.

Baker County’s COVID-19 trends over the past two months don’t justify the two-week system. Since mid-January the county’s rate of new cases has been well below what it was during November and December, and the general trend has been downward.

After recording 196 new cases during December, an average of 6.3 cases per day, Baker County’s numbers have dropped to 106 cases in January (3.4 per day) and to 70 cases in February (2.5 per day). Through 22 days in March, the rate was 1.9 cases per day.

Fortunately, since Feb. 12 the county has been in either the lowest or the second-lowest of the four-level risk system, meaning businesses have been subject to less-stringent restrictions than for counties in the high or extreme category.

Yet as Bennett points out, a single large outbreak in a care facility or workplace could move the county into either of those categories, even though such an isolated situation wouldn’t reflect a significant risk of the virus spreading in the community. Outbreaks at Settler’s Park and at Behlen Mfg. Co. are largely responsible for the county moving from the lowest to the moderate category for the two-week period starting March 12. The county will return to the lowest of the risk levels Friday, March 26, because new cases dropped from 44 in the prior two-week measuring period to 24 in the most recent, which ended March 20.

The governor should assure Baker County, and other counties with similar COVID-19 trends, that they will remain at the lowest risk, not for just two weeks but unless the COVID-19 situation dictates otherwise. If an outbreak occurs in the meantime, the state should allow the Baker County Health Department to decide whether the risk of wider community spread is sufficient to impose stricter regulations temporarily.

State officials also need to focus on the current restrictions on businesses and other activities, some of which might be as outdated as the two-week risk level system.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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