UMATILLA COUNTY — Oregon schools won’t be able to reopen for in-person instruction for roughly 200 days, and more restrictions may be coming for Oregonians statewide if the current rate of daily COVID-19 cases doesn’t sharply decline, Gov. Kate Brown said during a media briefing Friday, Aug. 21.
“We all want in-person education to reopen. To do that we must meet our goals. Right now, on the course we’re on, it’s going to take too long,” Brown said. “We’re doing well, but we have to do better. We have to work together, and we have to do it now.”
A majority of Umatilla County schools won’t be permitted to reopen for in-person instruction until both the state and the county record a test positivity rate of less than 5% for three consecutive weeks, and until the county has reported less than 10 new cases per 100,000 people for three consecutive weeks.
After peaking at a positive test rate of 24.2% before being sent back to baseline on July 31, Umatilla County recorded a positive test rate of 16% the week of Aug. 9-15, according to the Oregon Health Authority.
The state’s latest data also listed the county’s cases per 100,000 at 207 for the week of Aug. 3-9.
While local case numbers improved enough in recent weeks for Umatilla County to move back into Phase 1 of reopening on Aug. 20, earlier this week Umatilla County Public Health Director Joe Fiumara shared a similar bleak outlook on local schools’ prospects of reopening.
“I don’t have a crystal ball and things could happen, but anybody who is expecting the schools to operate in person in Umatilla County this year, I wouldn’t put much money on that,” Fiumara said Aug. 19. “I hope we get there, I really do. But the numbers we’ve got to get to right now are really, really low.”
Based on the state’s current metrics, Umatilla County would have to report eight cases or less per week for three straight weeks in order for all schools to be eligible to reopen for in-person instruction. If the county can reach the metric of less than 5% test positivity rate for three weeks and reports 24 cases or less per week over that span, then schools would be permitted to offer in-person options for kindergarten through third-grade students and school districts of less than 100 students could reopen.
But local schools reopening is also reliant on improvement in the statewide numbers, which Brown said Aug. 21 have dropped to about 300 new cases per day but need to fall to 60 new cases per day in order for in-person instruction to be viable.
To bring the statewide infection rate down, Brown said she may issue more business closures and implement travel restrictions with quarantine requirements throughout the state. But in hopes of avoiding that path, Brown is instead requesting local leaders to further emphasize the education and enforcement of already mandated measures.
“I’m here to deliver a message to local elected officials, local community leaders and business leaders, and to every single Oregonian — now is the time to step up even further,” Brown said.
Brown said this specifically entails leading by example, educating first about the importance of measures like face coverings and social distancing, and then enforcing those measures when necessary.
The call from Brown comes just as Umatilla County launched “The Umatilla County COVID-19 Response and Recovery Team,” which includes the county, the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation, and the cities of Pendleton, Hermiston and Milton-Freewater.
“The Response and Recovery Team will work with the Oregon Health Authority to determine a common set of metrics that will guide the reopening response,” a press release stated. “Regular updates will be shared through a website, email newsletter, and the individual channels of the team members. An accompanying public awareness campaign will deliver messaging regarding goals and achievements.”
As for “enforcement when necessary,” an individual refusing to wear a mask in public spaces when mandated can be subject to a Class C misdemeanor. Yet, Brown has said she doesn’t want local police issuing tickets for violations, which law enforcement leaders in Umatilla County say has and will continue to be their approach.
“Law enforcement, I think, was intentionally and appropriately removed from that equation, so we don’t even spend much time or energy worrying about such things,” Pendleton Police Chief Stuart Roberts said. “Obviously, we’ll encourage compliance but we certainly aren’t looking to get involved in citations or anything of that nature.”
Roberts said businesses violating guidelines will continue to be funneled to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration, social gatherings breaking the mandated limitations go to the Oregon Health Authority, and bar and restaurant violations will be forwarded to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission.
Umatilla County Sheriff Terry Rowan also said Aug. 21 that his deputies won’t issue citations, but would continue to advise those in violation of health guidelines to contact state agencies.
But while Brown acknowledged these guidelines require a cultural shift and have led to “COVID fatigue,” she said the numbers dictate that they need to be followed with more vigor and urgency across the state.
“The data now is really, really clear,” Brown said. “The choice is really in the hands of Oregonians.”