PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — For more than two months restaurants in the state's most populous counties have been closed to indoor dining, in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19. But on Friday, that will change.
Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that 10 counties, including the Portland tri-county area, will be moving from the “extreme risk” tier to a lower risk category as COVID-19 cases decrease in the state — allowing restaurants to open for indoor dining and gyms to increase capacity.
“Thanks to Oregonians who have stepped up and made smart choices, we have made incredible progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives in Oregon,” Brown said Tuesday. “This is welcome news, as we’ll start to see more businesses open up and Oregonians being able to get out a bit more."
Every two weeks state epidemiologists assess each counties risk levels, based on COVID-19 spread in the area, and assigns safety measures and restrictions based on that level in an effort to decrease COVID-19 cases.
The state has had a total of 147,932 confirmed coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic. The death toll is 2,031.
Since November Multnomah County, home to Portland, has been listed at highest level, “extreme risk.” Currently 24 counties, including all of the Willamette Valley are in the “extreme risk” tier.
Under the “extreme risk” level generally prohibits indoor dining although outdoor dining is allowed, indoor exercise at gyms and indoor visits at long-term care facilities, among other restrictions.
For a county to make it to a lower level, the counties with at least 30,0000 residents must have a COVID-19 case count less than 200 per 100,000 people and a test positivity rate less than 10%.
The governor announced Tuesday that Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Deschutes, Hood River, Klamath, Linn, Multnomah and Washington counties have all been moved from “extreme risk” to “high risk.” In addition Baker, Grant, Harney, Lake and Morrow counties have also moved to lower risk levels. The new levels go into effect Friday.
"If we want to keep businesses open, reopen schools for in-person instruction, and stay safe, we must keep up our guard. Until vaccines are more widely available, case counts could go back up if we don’t keep following safety measures,” Gov. Brown said.
Restaurants in “high risk” level counties will be allowed to open for indoor dining and gyms can increase the amount of people inside. The capacity for both restaurants and gym can't exceed 25% maximum occupancy or 50 people, whichever is smaller.
Oregon restaurants have struggled during the pandemic.
A month into Oregon’s March shutdown, an estimated 81% of Oregon restaurant workers had been laid off or furloughed — impacting 127,000 employees, according to a national survey conducted by the National Restaurant Association.
By November 2020, around 200 restaurants or 2% of Oregon's restaurants had permanently closed.
The bi-weekly county risk level assessment took an additional toll on restaurants.
“Oregonians in our industry can’t pay their monthly bills with two weeks of employment certainty at a time,” Jason Brandt, the president & CEO for the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said in late January. “The reality of the two week county risk category assessments is taking us down a dangerous path where tens of thousands of Oregonians no longer have paychecks again. The lack of continuity in operations is permanently altering too many Oregonian livelihoods."
On Friday 14 counties, including Lane, Marion and Yamhill will remain in the “extreme risk” level.
However, some restaurant owners say that now that they are allowed to reopen for indoor dining, they are unsure if they will do so as they weigh the risks and possibly wait to be vaccinated.
“I think it’s devastating to people because it’s like these business owners are having to make these decisions; do I do 25% dining and potentially save my business, or do I risk my life?” Katy Connors with the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon told KOIN 6 Tuesday. “Do I risk my life and the life of my workers? That’s the conversations that are going to start happening.”
Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.