Governor denies Marion and Polk counties plans to reopen Friday

The view from Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis’ office in downtown Salem on May 5, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Marion and Polk counties won’t begin phased openings on Friday, commissioners learned during a call with Gov. Kate Brown’s office Thursday morning.

Residents won’t be able to patronize bars, gyms or barber shops in either county while many other counties across the state were given a green light for limited opening of businesses that have been shuttered due to the coronavirus outbreak.

Marion County Commissioner Kevin Cameron said the county experienced a spike in hospitalizations in the last week, which is out of its control. As of May 12, there were 5 confirmed COVID-19 patients at Salem Health.

The Oregon Health Authority will be reviewing criteria each Wednesday to determine when the county can reopen, he said.

Cameron said the governor’s office would be releasing additional guidance Thursday about what metrics the county needs to reach before opening certain businesses back up. Cameron also said the county would get further guidance about which retail businesses will be allowed to open Friday, May 15. 

In the last week, Marion County saw its highest case spike yet, with 43 cases on May 9. Residents in Marion County are testing positive for the coronavirus at double the rate of any other county in Oregon.

Cameron said there have been new cases that aren’t tied to existing infections.

“That is an issue and we’ve got more contact tracing,” he said.

Pat Allen of Oregon Health Authority said that Marion County couldn’t trace the source of the infection in 40% of the cases, during a news conference Thursday morning.

The state has deployed 20 of its 100 contact tracers and case investigators to help Marion County. 

Cameron said the county recently hired two additional contact tracers, bringing the county’s total to 24.

“We’ve got the contact tracing, it’s just the results in our community. We’ve got these hot spots that we need to deal with,” Cameron said.

Residents in the zip codes encircling Woodburn and Gervais have been hit especially hard, with residents in Gervais’ 97026 zip code testing positive at eight times the rate of south Salem’s 97302 zip code.

Across the Willamette River, Polk County saw a recent spike in cases that was attributed to an assisted living facility in west Salem.

As of May 13, 32 residents and 17 staff members of Prestige Senior Living Orchard Heights have tested positive for the virus.

Three people have died in Polk County in the last two days, according to state data.

Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope said the county didn’t meet the criteria for decreasing hospital admissions over a 14-day period and won’t begin plans for a phased opening it released on Monday.

Pope said Brown’s chief of staff, Nik Blosser, told him the county’s reopening plans were complete, but some of the criteria were out of the county’s control.

“We’re not done talking to the state. We’ll continue to make a case for trying to open as many businesses as we can safely and try to understand the science that they’re making decisions from,” Pope said.

He said he wants to see the data on hospital admissions that OHA is basing reopening on.

Pope is also unsure if Marion and Polk will reopen in tandem because of a shared city. Pope said each county has a good case for not doing that.

“There are a lot of constituents that are going to say: ‘What’s happening here? Why are we being held hostage because of Salem?” he said. 

This story was updated to reflect the latest number of cases at Prestige Senior Living Orchard Heights.

Have a tip? Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, [email protected] or @daisysaphara.