Oregon Gov. Kate Brown has in effect acknowledged that the state’s system for setting COVID-19 risk levels in the 36 counties, and the associated state-imposed restrictions on businesses and activities, was too reactionary.

Baker County has benefitted from the governor’s reconsideration.

Under the system in place from December through mid-March, the county, based on the tripling of new cases during the two-week measuring period that ended April 3, would have moved from the lowest of the four risk levels to the highest (“extreme” in the state’s parlance) starting April 9.

But in March Brown announced that counties, in certain situations, would not be subject to more stringent restrictions immediately after recording a jump in cases over two weeks.

As a result of the change, Baker County, which dropped to the lowest risk level on March 26, will remain at that level through at least April 22 despite posting 79 new cases for the two-week period ending April 3 (compared with 24 in the previous period). Under the old system, any more than 59 cases during that period would have pushed Baker County into extreme risk.

Now, the county’s risk level, starting April 23, will be based on case counts, and test positivity rates, for the period April 4-17, what the state deems the “caution period.”

The difference in effects between the old and the current state approach is considerable.

If Baker County returned to the extreme risk level — it dropped from that level on Feb. 5 — the effects on restaurants and bars, theaters and other businesses would be dramatic.

Today, with the county at the lowest risk, restaurants and bars can have indoor dining up to 50% of their capacity. In counties at extreme risk, by contrast, indoor dining is prohibited.

The risk level system, with its two-week periods, creates uncertainty that is grossly unfair to business owners as they try to plan their operations. A restaurant owner, for instance, faces the prospect of being stuck with freezers full of food, and cooks and servers scheduled to work, only to be banned from welcoming diners.

The system is inherently flawed because it relies solely on case counts and positivity rates, without considering the biggest sources of COVID-19 infections. Throughout the pandemic, Oregon has subjected restaurants and bars to some of the state’s more stringent restrictions, despite a shortage of evidence that indoor dining is a significant vector for the virus.

The new two-week caution period, though an improvement, fails to address that gap between cause and effect.

Baker County Commissioner Mark Bennett, in an email to the Herald on Tuesday, April 6, wrote that the county’s recent surge in cases has “not shown a direct correlation to restaurants or bars ...” Bennett contends that restrictions intended to curb the spread of COVID-19 should not, therefore, focus on those businesses.

Bennett is right.

Also on Tuesday, Brown announced another change to the risk level system, adding new statewide thresholds that must be met for any county to move to the extreme category. No county will move to, or stay in, that category if fewer than 300 people — total, for the entire state — who have tested positive for COVID-19 are in a hospital. As of Tuesday, that statewide number was 163.

This is another positive change, acknowledging that one statistic — new case totals — doesn’t necessarily reflect how the virus is affecting the medical system.

But the governor needs to do more to address the ongoing inequities in the restrictions she has imposed, including those that do little if anything to limit the spread of the virus but cause significant harm to businesses that have been struggling under the yoke of those restrictions for more than a year.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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