SALEM, Ore. — Oregon Gov. Kate Brown on Friday announced a statewide two-week “freeze" which will limit restaurants and bars to take-out only and close gyms, indoor and outdoor recreational facilities during that period.
If people do not abide by the governor's latest mandates, which restricts social gatherings to six people, they could face a citation, fine or arrest.
The freeze will take effect starting Nov. 18 through Dec. 2 and aims to limit group activities and slow the spread of COVID-19. The state is experiencing a spike in coronavirus infections and has reached record high positivity rates and hospitalizations in November.
“If we want to give Oregonians a fighting chance then we must take further measures to flatten the curve now,” Brown said.
During Friday’s press conference, officials gave grim descriptions of the state's current situation: “Likely the most dangerous time in Oregon”, “the roughest days of the pandemic” and “dark days ahead.”
The governor has long warned about implementing tighter restrictions if case numbers did not fall. Just a week ago, Brown announced a two-week “social activity pause” for nine counties — but this week, officials said that more needed to be done.
The latest set of restrictions are the most stringent since the start of the pandemic. Some “hot spot counties” will have longer freezes. Multnomah County, Oregon’s most populous and home to Portland, will have at least a four-week freeze.
As part of the freeze, grocery stores, pharmacies and retail stores are limited to a maximum capacity of 75%. Faith based organizations will also have their capacity reduced to 25 people indoors and 50 people outdoors.
However, other facilities — gyms and fitness centres , museums, pools, sports courts, movie theatres , zoos, gardens, aquariums and venues — will have to close their doors completely.
Restaurants and bars, which had a capacity limit of 50-100 people depending on the county and curfew of 10 p.m., will now be limited to take-out only.
Following the news, Ezra Caraeff, who owns three bar-restaurants and one bar in Portland, compared the new restrictions to Oregon’s March shutdown.
“The hardest part last time was not closing down or washing my hands more, the hardest part was laying off 50 people,” he said. “So to have to do this again is hard to even think about.”
Caraeff had to lay off his employees and has since rehired all but two of them. He has spent the last weeks retrofitting his establishments for outdoor dining in Oregon’s wet winter weather.
He said the latest closure order will be devastating for him and his employees.
Under the new orders, all businesses will be required to close their offices to the public and mandate work-from-home “to the greatest extent possible," Brown said.
The freeze does not apply to barber shops, hair salons, congregate homeless sheltering, outdoor recreation and sports, youth programs, childcare, and K-12 schools that are already open.
Lastly, both indoor and outdoor social get-togethers are limited to six people, total, from no more than two households. Brown has previously described measures on social-gatherings as “self-enforced."
“Up until now, enforcement or reporting of violations of guidelines has been more directed at commercial enterprise and thus the purview of other state licensing agencies,” said Lt. Treven Upkes, Salem Police Department spokesperson.
But on Friday Brown said she has now directed the Oregon State Police superintendent to work with local law enforcement on implementation.
Brown said the state has “no other option” besides engaging law enforcement. Violation of the restrictions equate to a Class C misdemeanour and could result in a citation, fine or arrest.
The new restrictions do not go into effect until next week, giving restaurants, businesses and police departments time to prepare for the changes.
The Salem Police Department, located in Oregon’s capital city, has not yet met with the Oregon’s Superintendent of Police or formed a “game plan” for agency responses to the new guidelines.
“Until we have those meetings, we cannot accurately predict our response capabilities or enforcement actions,” Upkes said.
Police officials in both Salem and Portland said throughout the pandemic, their primary goal has been to educate people about the COVID-19 safety measures.
“From the Portland Police perspective, a citation or any kind of enforcement for violating such an order would be an absolute last resort,” said Lt. Greg Pashley, a spokesperson for the Portland Police Bureau. “We encourage voluntary compliance from individuals and businesses.”
In Portland, the city has been faced with nightly protests for months that consistently end in arrests or a fog of teargas. The demonstrations, at times have attracted thousands of people.
“Regarding protests, we will take the approach we have all year. Our priority is responding to emergencies or situations where there is a threat to life safety, given available resources,” Pashley said. “If you review the list of crimes following arrests at violent mass gatherings this year, I don’t think you will find any mention of violating executive orders related to COVID-19.”
In addition, Brown, along with the governors of California and Washington issued travel advisories Friday urging residents to avoid non-essential out-of-state travel and asking people to self-quarantine for 14 days after arriving from another state or country.
COVID-19 cases in Oregon have been increasing since mid-September and began to surge at an “alarming rate” in November.
On Friday, Oregon recorded 1,076, new confirmed or presumptive cases, the second time the tally had surpassed 1,000 cases. The total number of cases in the state is nearly 55,000. The death toll is 746.
The per cent of people testing positive was nearly 12% statewide, more than double what it was in the summer, according to Oregon Health Authority data.
The rising case count does not bode well for hospitals. For the past two weeks officials have expressed concerns about nearing hospital capacity in the state.
Authorities reported a record 303 coronavirus patients in hospitals Friday — a 81% increase since the end of October. In metro hospitals on Friday there were only 15 intensive care unit beds available.
Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.
Sara Cline, The Associated Press