Gov. Kate Brown dramatically revised longstanding COVID-19 benchmarks Tuesday in an apparent bid to keep restaurants and other businesses largely operating as is, sidestepping prohibitions or severe restrictions on indoor activities.
Brown set a new requirement that indoor dining will be prohibited only if Oregon sees active hospitalizations from COVID-19 swell statewide to 300, roughly double the current number, and if there’s a 15% increase in average daily hospitalizations week over week.
Brown made the revisions as cases and hospitalizations have climbed in recent weeks, with the state Tuesday reporting 544 new cases and 33 deaths – although many of the fatalities likely occurred weeks ago.
Brown has effectively created a buffer for businesses, in some ways undermining her public messaging from last week calling for renewed efforts to slow coronavirus spread as part of a race to vaccinate more Oregonians before coronavirus variants become too rampant.
The change means Josephine, Klamath and Tillamook counties will avoid moving into the state’s “extreme risk” category that comes with the heaviest restrictions on businesses, such as prohibiting indoor dining and placing severe limitations on the number of people inside gyms and theaters.
Those restrictions were originally created last fall to slow coronavirus spread. Other counties could similarly escape restraints in coming weeks despite increasing case rates, so long as hospitalizations don’t climb too steeply.
Charles Boyle, a spokesperson for Brown, said the governor felt comfortable changing her criteria because Oregonians are being vaccinated against COVID-19 – something that wasn’t true when she rolled out the metrics for business restrictions last fall.
“Hospitalizations are an indicator of serious illness in our communities,” Boyle said in a statement. “By linking Extreme Risk to statewide hospitalizations, we will ensure that we are not instituting the highest level of restrictions when hospital capacity is not threatened.”
Oregon on Tuesday reported 163 active hospitalizations. Oregon could climb to about 300 hospitalizations in May if the feared spring surge materializes, according to modeling released last week by Oregon Health & Science University, meaning restaurants could face at least a month reprieve from bans on indoor dining.
Large counties qualify for “extreme risk” and the strongest restrictions if they have at least 200 cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. That categorization triggers prohibitions on indoor dining and indoor visits at long-term care facilities, and gyms and theaters generally can’t have more than six customers.
Large counties in the next tier, “high risk,” can offer indoor access at 25% capacity up to 50 people, and indoor visits in care facilities are permitted.
Fourteen counties will now be in the “high risk” tier, including Multnomah and Clackamas counties, effective Friday. Those metro-area jurisdictions were downgraded because of increasing coronavirus spread, and certain businesses will see indoor capacity fall from 50% to 25% as a result.
Boyle noted that counties moving backward, such as Multnomah and Clackamas, still must comply with what he labeled as “significant restrictions” in the “high-risk” tier.
“Now, we need Oregonians to strictly follow the health and safety measures in effect, and to get vaccinated as quickly as possible when a vaccine is available to them, so that we can stop the spread of COVID-19,” Boyle said.
Vaccines: Oregon reported 32,955 newly administered doses, which includes 21,170 Monday and the remainder from previous days.
Where the new cases are by county: Baker (4), Benton (11), Clackamas (86), Clatsop (1), Columbia (5), Coos (10), Crook (2), Curry (2), Deschutes (35), Douglas (7), Grant (9), Harney (3), Hood River (2), Jackson (33), Jefferson (2), Josephine (12), Klamath (21), Lane (41), Lincoln (3), Linn (17), Malheur (4), Marion (36), Multnomah (68), Polk (10), Sherman (1), Tillamook (7), Umatilla (8), Union (4), Wasco (1), Washington (97) and Yamhill (2).
Who died: The state did not immediately provide details of the 33 fatalities.
Hospitalizations: 163 people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 are hospitalized, down 14 from Monday. That includes 42 people in intensive care, the same as Monday.
Since it began: Oregon has reported 167,658 confirmed or presumed infections and 2,427 deaths, among the lowest per capita numbers in the nation. To date, the state has reported 2,031,252 vaccine doses administered.
— Brad Schmidt; email@example.com; 503-294-7628; @_brad_schmidt