PENDLETON — Following Gov. Kate Brown’s sweeping orders to shut down dine-in restaurants and events 25 people or larger, Umatilla County and the city of Pendleton declared a state of emergency Wednesday in response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Board of Commissioners had been reluctant to go beyond a state of alert with only two positive COVID-19 cases in the county, neither of which are considered active by the county health department, but felt the ongoing impacts of the pandemic warranted the emergency declaration.
“We feel very strongly that this is both a medical crisis and an economic crisis,” Commissioner George Murdock said at Wednesday’s Board of Commissioners’ meeting. “We are deeply sensitive to the fact that a number of people in this community are going to be dramatically impacted. We fear that there are businesses that will be closed that may never reopen.”
The declaration allows the commissioners to more easily allocate resources and be flexible in its response to the crisis. The board used that flexibility on Wednesday by ordering the county’s offices be closed to the public except by appointment beginning Thursday until further notice.
“We’d rather err on the side of public safety versus leaving it open and exposing people to a potential risk,” Commissioner John Shafer said. “The bottom line is we’re still open for business, just on a modified schedule. We’re still doing the work of the people.”
To address the foreseeable economic burden felt by small businesses, the commissioners are also using the declaration to bypass its usual emphasis on staff to shop for the cheapest option when making purchases on behalf of the county and instead are urging staff to shop from Umatilla County businesses.
On Tuesday, City Manager Robb Corbett told the Pendleton City Council that he had been wrestling with the decision all day before polling four department heads and getting unanimous approval for the declaration.
The document gives Corbett the power to close public facilities, and he told the council he planned to close most city buildings to the public, including city hall, by Thursday. Residents who need to meet with city staff in person will have to make an appointment first before being able to access a city facility.
“Our mission statement is to provide a safe and healthy community,” he said. “In order for us to do that, our employees have to be on the job. In a moment at a workplace that someone becomes ill, then everybody in that workplace is contaminated. And all of a sudden we have multiple outages that can severely limit our ability to function.”
Pendleton Convention Center Manager Pat Beard said the convention center will be affected by the closure policy and has postponed or rescheduled 16 events, mostly in March and April.
“We’re going to see the other side of this,” he said.
City Attorney Nancy Kerns said Pendleton Municipal Court is canceled during the city facility closure, and all jury trials have been postponed to the next quarter.
The declaration also suspends shut-off notices for unpaid water bills and gives Corbett the ability to suspend other utility billing department rules.
The city manager has the power to suspend nonessential city services, and although Corbett said he plans to keep most services active, some services like the recreation program and the public library were put on hiatus because it would be difficult to conduct them and still observe social distancing and gathering rules. Despite the library’s closure, Corbett said library staff would still work to get patrons reading material based on their requests.
The city now has the official ability to enforce the governor’s executive order, and Corbett said Pendleton police were circulating on Tuesday afternoon to make sure restaurants and bars were in compliance.
Although Corbett can also cancel the meetings of the city’s various commissions and committees, Mayor John Turner said the council plans to continue conducting in-person council meetings.
The city put out noticeably less chairs for the audience than it usually does, and if a “hot-button” issue draws a crowd that would push the room over 25 people, Turner said the city would take measures to keep it under that threshold.
He added that one possible solution would be to create an overflow room in the annex next door that would allow people to continue listening to the discussion.