The Clackamas County Board of Commissioners on Thursday night sent a letter to Governor Kate Brown outlining their concerns about her decision to move area businesses backward in her reopening framework based on rising case numbers and pleading with her to consider less economically impactful alternatives.
“We know that reopening schools to in-person instruction, coupled with businesses bringing employees and customers back, results in Covid-19 cases rising,” the commissioners wrote.
“This is not new information and it is not surprising. However, reopening then closing businesses, and moving kids from hybrid in-person to only virtual learning, would cause harm in addition to rising COVID-19 cases. The economic hardships will be felt by our communities for years.”
The board voted to send the letter after a lengthy discussion Thursday night, which included input from all five commissioners, community members and the leaders of several local chambers of commerce, including Canby Area Chamber Director Kyle Lang.
Lang was among those who pointed out that very few — if any — of the new cases had been traced back to businesses that would be most impacted by the roll-back: namely, restaurants, bars, gyms, theaters and other entertainment venues.
“From what we can see, the spikes have been generated by younger populations, related to after-hours school activities,” Lang said, reading a letter from Canby-area businesses. “How will business roll-backs influence positive change? What measures will the state take to address the source of the outbreaks?”
Lang asked that the governor reinstate the two-week caution period — a grace period Brown had said she would allow for counties whose coronavirus metrics were trending in the wrong direction — but failed to implement in Clackamas County’s case.
“Wouldn’t this be a more logical first step in gaining ground?” Lang asked. “Local business owners are not about endangering themselves, their employees or their communities. They are simply looking for the boundaries, the rules by which they are being asked to operate and wanting a degree of stability.”
The commissioners’ letter had also asked the governor to honor the two-week caution period and allow officials to focus education and enforcement on specific populations where outbreaks appear to be concentrated.
“Three days’ notice to our businesses to prepare to cut capacity does not afford them the time necessary to plan for inventory reduction, staffing changes, and everyday operation modifications,” the commissioners said. “Many of our restaurants have spent $10,000 to $20,000 in purchasing supplies and retraining and hiring employees that will be lost by this sudden change.”
The letter also notes that hospital capacity — as well as the availability of intensive care units, ventilators and other resources — has remained stable despite the rise in new cases.
“Although cases are going up, as expected, we have successfully maintained capacity and been able to provide the needed services for our most severe cases,” the letter says. “Hospital capacity cannot be understated. … Reducing business capacity due to case counts alone, when other public health metrics should be considered, is another setback to our entire community.”
While all commissioners were in favor of sending the letter, none were as outspoken in their opposition to the governor’s latest move as Chair Tootie Smith, who made headlines on several occasions last year, before taking office, for her vocal defiance of some of the state’s more restrictive Covid-19 guidelines.
She pointed out what she views as a disconnect between Oregon’s coronavirus restrictions — which she said are more severe than those in effect in at least 30 other states — “despite the fact that Oregon has, on a per capita basis, some of the lowest Covid rates.”
“Balance has been so lacking in this entire equation,” Smith said. “The balance of our economic health and our mental health is what I want to see us bring to the table.
“I think we’ve gone clear over to one side and are so worried about what the physical health impacts are, that we’re literally going to die because of the economic and mental health constraints that this is putting on us.”
Balance was also a problem for Vice Chair Paul Savas, who said the governor’s restrictions not only disproportionately impact certain sectors and types of businesses — particularly, small and independently owned restaurants and other businesses as opposed to corporate big-box stores and chains — but also geographically.
On top of the pandemic, Clackamas County was the hardest hit during the February ice storm and among the most devastated during the wildfires last September.
“Our residents have been through much – three declared disasters in 11 months,” the letter says. “While our communities are resilient, many businesses and their employees are on the precipice of collapse.”
And yet, Clackamas received only a tiny fraction of the federal CARES Act dollars that the state allocated to its more populous metro area neighbors, Multnomah and Washington counties.
“Our businesses have suffered more and gotten less assistance from the state,” Savas said. “Our businesses are more vulnerable in Clackamas County than in our neighboring counties.”
Commissioner Mark Shull also bristled at the governor’s decision, calling it “the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
“We cannot accept it,” he said. “People must be allowed to work and prosper. No amount of CARES Act money, federal money, state money can replace the industry of the people. The recent rise in cases has been attributed to after-school activities — not business activity. Why should business suffer?
“We will live with Covid, as we have lived with other diseases in the past, but we cannot live without work, jobs, business and the hope that comes from freedom to work.”
While Smith agreed to sign off on the letter drafted and approved by the other commissioners, she said she would also reserve the right to “draft [her] own letter, with [her] own messagin” after seeing the response from Brown Friday — hinting that she may push the board toward more open defiance of the governor’s orders.
“Commissioners, I’m going to tell some of the people, you’re going to be really uncomfortable,” she said. “Because it’s time we stand up and really take some leadership in Clackamas County. .. There comes a time, people, that we’re going to have to draw a line in the sand.”
Read the full letter from the commissioners here. See the complete video from Thursday night’s board meeting below.
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