Baker County’s post-spring break, post-Easter surge in COVID-19 cases is waning.
But the punishment to businesses, which haven’t been implicated in the increase in infections, hasn’t even begun.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown needs to fix this unfair situation.
The state’s strategy for curbing the spread of the virus is more flexible than it was during the winter.
But it’s still too rigid.
Brown has in effect conceded that a surge in cases at the county level doesn’t necessarily justify imposing harsh restrictions on businesses such as restaurants, bars and theaters.
In mid-March the governor decided that counties, even if they have a significant increase in cases over a two-week period, shouldn’t automatically be subject to more stringent limitations. Brown approved what state officials call a two-week “caution period,” during which a county’s risk level doesn’t change.
Under the previous system, Baker County’s risk level would have jumped from the lowest to the highest of the four levels (“extreme” risk) starting April 9 based on the county’s 79 cases from March 21-April 3.
The county’s surge continued during the caution period, with 79 more cases for the two weeks ending April 17. Based on that, the county’s risk level increases to high (rather than extreme because the state hasn’t reached a new threshold on COVID-19 patients who are hospitalized) this Friday, April 23. That limits indoor dining at restaurants and bars to 25% of capacity or 50 total people, whichever is fewer, compared with the current 50%. The same restriction applies to the Eltrym Theater and to indoor gyms, fitness centers and swimming pools. The capacity for outdoor events, including school sports, drops from 300 to 75.
These severe restrictions will be in effect through at least May 6, according to an announcement from the governor on Tuesday, April 20.
Lest anyone credit Brown for giving the county a two-week grace period, consider this — the county’s current COVID-19 trend is decidedly downward.
Since recording a two-day record high of 30 cases on April 13-14, and 39 cases from April 13-15, the county’s daily case totals have been 6, 2, 3, 0 and 6.
It seems likely that the surge, which according to the Baker County Health Department was driven largely by private social gatherings, has ended. Case numbers are trending toward the rates that prevailed from mid-January through most of March. During that period the daily average was below three cases per day, and the highest one-day total was seven.
Yet even if this positive trend continues, businesses — which, to reiterate, haven’t been implicated as contributing to the recent surge in cases — will suffer for at least two weeks.
This situation, which is both illogical and unfair, highlights the need for the governor to allow county health officials to determine risk levels, and the associated restrictions, based on fresh, comprehensive data rather than stale and incomplete statistics.
Local officials are capable of determining whether restaurants and other businesses are contributing to an uptick in COVID-19 infections, and whether restrictions on businesses could be beneficial.
Early in the pandemic, when we knew relatively little about COVID-19, and vaccines were limited to the laboratory, it was sensible to have the governor and state officials dictate a statewide approach.
That is no longer the case, and business owners should no longer be subject to that blunt strategy.
— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor