Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions are not working for Baker County.

Since the state instituted the four-tier risk system in early December, the county’s weekly rate of new infections has not fluctuated wildly.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) has reported two COVID-19 outbreaks in the county during that period. One, at Ashley Manor Care Center in Baker City, included just four cases, the first on Dec. 18.

The much larger, and ongoing, outbreak is at the Powder River Correctional Facility in Baker City. As of Sunday, Jan. 10, the outbreak at the minimum-security prison, which houses about 320 inmates, included 56 inmates and 13 employees. That single outbreak accounts for 30% of the county’s total of 226 cases between Dec. 3, when the four-category system started, and Jan. 11.

Appropriately, the OHA is not counting cases among inmates if doing so would push Baker County to a higher risk level. Because inmates are confined, they don’t pose the same level of risk for spreading the virus in the community. Inmates do share indoor spaces with employees, but the relatively low number of infections among staff suggests the prison’s precautions are somewhat effective.

But even though the statistics show that COVID-19 is not spreading rapidly in the community, Baker County was subject to the most severe business restrictions for the first four weeks, Dec. 3-31. Restaurants and bars were limited to takeout orders. Fitness centers, theaters and museums were prohibited from opening.

The county dropped to the high-risk category on Jan. 1, albeit with the barest margin possible. Had there been even one more positive test during the previous two-week measuring period — 60 rather than 59 — the county would have remained at extreme risk.

But the respite was short-lived.

Starting on Friday, Jan. 15, Baker County returns to the extreme-risk level. That will remain in effect at least until Jan. 28. It was again a close thing. Per OHA guidelines, Baker County is at extreme risk if either of two thresholds is met during the two-week measuring period — 60 or more new cases (after deducting Powder River inmate cases); or a test positivity rate of 10% or higher. Baker County had 64 new cases, according to OHA. And the county’s positivity rate was 12%.

The COVID-19 situation in the county hasn’t changed significantly since Jan. 1. But for certain businesses the difference between high risk and extreme is, well, extreme.

Restaurants and bars, which have welcomed customers indoors since Jan. 1, albeit with occupancy limits, must revert to takeout.

Fitness centers have to close again.

It’s unfair for the state to put business owners in such an untenable and unpredictable position, in which they learn, just three days in advance, how, or even whether, they’ll be able to operate.

Moreover, there is no evidence to suggest that these business restrictions play a meaningful role, if any role at all, in curbing the spread of COVID-19 in the county.

Nancy Staten, director of the Baker County Health Department, said on Monday, Jan. 11, that the department has not identified restaurants as places where people are infected.

Staten, along with public health administrators from five other rural counties, has asked state officials to let local officials set risk levels, or to remove the extreme-risk category. County Commissioner Mark Bennett said he has asked state officials to consider an exemption that reflects the lack of evidence that business restrictions have any effect except to harm local economies. State officials have done neither.

Baker County will recover from the pandemic.

But if state officials continue to impose rigid regulations that fail to reflect local conditions, some of our businesses might not recover.

— Jayson Jacoby, Baker City Herald editor

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