SALEM — Fifteen Oregon counties that fell to the extreme coronavirus risk category for less than a week earlier this month will receive funding from Gov. Kate Brown’s $20 million pledge to support local businesses.
Umatilla County was not one of these counties. Since it was only at high risk at the time, the county will not be receiving a dollar, despite remaining under the state’s most stringent lockdown measures longer than almost any county in Oregon due to high infection rates throughout the pandemic.
Now, officials are criticizing the state’s move, arguing that county businesses deserve the financial support.
“I am beyond frustrated and upset,” said Umatilla County Commissioner John Shafer, who sent a letter signed by the three county commissioners to Brown’s office on Thursday, May 13, denouncing the governor’s move.
“Where is the equity here?” the letter said. “Since day one of this pandemic, Umatilla County has been hit harder than any other county in the state. Our small businesses, many of which are minority owned, may never recover from this. Imagine the benefits they would enjoy if they had an opportunity to share in the $20 million.”
The 15 counties dropped to extreme risk on April 30. Under mounting pressure from business groups and lawmakers statewide, Brown moved to fund local businesses impacted by the restrictions. Then, on May 4, the restrictions were lifted as COVID-19 hospitalization rates slowed statewide.
In a Tuesday, May 11, press conference, Brown confirmed that the state will continue forward and fulfill its promises to fund those counties.
Umatilla County was at high risk at that time, where it remains, so it did not receive funding.
An inequitable proposal
The county’s businesses have been largely shut down under restrictions like the initial lockdown, Phase 1, the pause, the “two-week freeze” and the extreme risk category for a total of 181 days since the pandemic began, according to documents from the Umatilla County Health Department. That’s because the county consistently reported one of the highest testing positivity rates statewide since the pandemic began, according to state data.
Only one county, Multnomah County, has been under the same level of restrictions for longer. Two other counties, Josephine and Marion, have been under the restrictions for the same amount of time, documents show.
But each of those counties fell briefly to extreme risk in Brown’s last assessment. Josephine County, with nearly 9,000 more people than Umatilla County, will receive more than $712,000 for the brief stint in extreme risk, according to county documents showing funding to the 15 counties. Marion and Multnomah will each receive millions of dollars because of their large population.
“Because we were not in (extreme risk) for that one three-day window, they don’t get any of the money,” Shafer said of county businesses. “I think they deserve some money for having their doors shut down for longer than anybody else. I’m not trying to take money away from those counties that are getting the money. I’m very happy for those restaurants, and I’m sure I’ve eaten at many of them. However, that doesn’t mean our restaurants don’t deserve a piece of that funding either.”
Other counties that were under the state’s strictest measures for far less time than Umatilla County will receive funding from Brown’s recent move. Grant County, for instance, will receive more than $243,000 for the few days it spent in extreme risk. The county was locked down under the state’s strictest measure for just over half the time that Umatilla County was, documents show.
“It makes no sense,” Umatilla County Commissioner George Murdock said. “It’s inequitable. I can’t understand the reason. We’ve asked the question and all we get is, ‘That’s just the way it is.’”
Additional $20M to assist counties with first doses
When the East Oregonian asked Brown in the May 11 press conference this week to explain further, and to respond to officials’ claims that the state was ignoring areas where restrictions have plagued businesses longest due to high case rates, Brown did not answer directly, but said “the move to extreme risk was because of a maximum capacity because of hospital beds and because of health care workers.”
“I wanted to make sure we got money out the door as quickly as possible to help our small businesses in those counties,” the governor added.
Brown then spoke of the efforts the state is making to “make sure they have the resources they need to rebuild and recover and to create a more just and equitable Oregon,” but did not provide specifics.
The state will soon allocate another $20 million to assist individual counties vaccinating 65% of residents with their first dose — a new benchmark Brown set earlier this week that would allow counties to move to lower risk, permitting restaurants, bars, gyms and indoor entertainment establishments to operate at half capacity.
“I think they originally thought that (extreme risk) was going to last a lot longer than that. And all of a sudden, it didn’t,” Murdock said. “So when they opened up after three days, I think it could have been appropriate for them to have revisited how they distributed the money. I think they could have shared some of that money with the counties that were hardest hit, like ours.”