Governor Kate Brown on Thursday issued a blistering statement in rebuke of local elected officials and business owners who have announced their intentions to reopen on New Year’s Day in defiance of her coronavirus executive orders, while outgoing Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard later responded to plans by a mayor of a city in his county to do just that.
Bernard on Thursday afternoon took aim at Sandy Mayor Stan Pulliam, who — weeks ago — had begun encouraging business owners in his city to reopen one level ahead of the governor’s current metrics for Covid-19.
Clackamas County, like most of the state, remains listed at “extreme risk” — the highest and most restrictive level of reopening — which includes allowing bars and restaurants to be open only for take-out and limited outdoor dining, while gyms, theaters and some other businesses must remain closed.
At the next level, however, is “high risk,” where virtually all businesses in the county are allowed to be open — albeit with strict guidelines and significantly reduced capacity. Pulliam and some other leaders have pushed for businesses to open under the “high risk” guidelines — with or without Brown’s approval.
On Thursday, the governor warned that such action could lead to fines and other penalties for the businesses who violate statewide restrictions, and could penalize the entire county by encouraging further spread of Covid-19.
“If businesses reopen too early and instead create new spikes in Covid-19 cases, the actions of a few business owners could set entire communities back and keep them in the extreme risk category for even longer,” Brown said in the prepared statement.
“It’s unfortunate and irresponsible that some local politicians are choosing to willfully mislead business owners into jeopardizing public health and risking fines, instead of working with their communities to help stop the spread of Covid-19 so that we can reopen businesses, schools, and more quickly return to normal life.”
Local elected officials lack the authority to disregard state orders, Brown noted, or to authorize anyone else to do so.
“Undoubtedly, those same local elected officials who are encouraging businesses to fully reopen and flagrantly disregard public health are unlikely to have the backs of businesses when faced with fines and penalties,” Brown accused, “nor are they likely to be willing to be held responsible for the public health impacts their actions create.”
The governor said she has directed Oregon OSHA and the Oregon Liquir Control Commission to “deploy all available resources” to ensure businesses are in compliance. She said enforcement agencies will continue to use an “education-first approach,” but are empowered to issue citations, fines and other warning notices as necessary.
“Oregon has led in our response to Covid-19, and help is on the way for struggling businesses,” Brown said. “I proposed new resources for rent relief for businesses in the third special session, and I expect a new round of federal aid to be delivered soon. We can’t waiver in our response to the virus now, when the end is finally in sight and resources are on the way. We are better than this.”
Bernard’s response was more narrowly focused, and seemed to take issue mainly with some of Pulliam’s statements in the state and national press suggesting that the coronavirus numbers in Sandy were low enough to indicate the area should be treated differently than more urban areas of Clackamas County — or even that the county public health department had such data, but had refused to release it.
“Data related to Covid-19 cases in Clackamas County has been available to the public,” Bernard said in the statement, which offered links to county and state metrics. “We are always willing to discuss and share Covid-19 data with community leaders.”
“We understand that everyone is tired of this global pandemic,” Bernard said. “We understand that businesses who remain restricted or closed want to open and that they have been hit hard over the last several months. We share the desire to reopen. Yet, reopening must be balanced with keeping our communities safe.”
Bernard begged Clackamas Countians to work together toward reopening and business recovery and to not unfairly target public health officials simply because their recommendations are inconvenient or unwelcome.
“Unsubstantiated claims about data tampering or padding erodes public trust, fosters fear in the community and is insulting to the public health officials, health care workers and public servants who are working tirelessly to keep you and your community safe,” Bernard said. “What would Clackamas County’s motive be to tampering with data? We gain noting and certainly have not wished to cause businesses to fail.”
In January, Bernard will be replaced as chair of the Clackamas County Board of Commissioners by the more conservative Tootie Smith, who appears to have differing views about how to approach the coronavirus pandemic and, certainly, the governor’s restrictions on businesses and private gatherings.
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