Outdoor dining will return, but Marion, Polk counties face long path toward lifting other Covid restrictions

New Covid cases have climbed rapidly in Marion County in recent weeks, prompting Gov. Kate Brown to declare the county at “extreme risk” (Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Marion and Polk counties will have to live under stringent limits on businesses and gatherings beyond next week as Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday listed the two counties as facing “extreme risk” from the coronavirus pandemic.

The governor announced a new system for assessing the public health risk county-by-county, imposing limits that ease as counties get the coronavirus under control.

For most of Oregon, though, the limits in place since last week will remain in effect, continuing to dampen the state’s economy as Oregonians head into the Christmas season.

Brown relented a bit on her restrictions on restaurants. She had limited restaurants and bars to takeout or delivery. Beginning Friday, Dec. 4, restaurants and bars statewide can host up to 50 people for outdoor dining – but with no more than six at a table.

For the two counties and 19 others, the governor will continue to limit social gatherings to no more than six people, preferably from no more than two households.

Churches will be allowed to resume services, limited to 25% of a building’s capacity or 100 people indoors, whichever is smaller.

Brown is also encouraging retailers, grocers and pharmacies to switch to curbside pick-up for goods. They otherwise will have to limit people inside to 50% of a building’s capacity, usually defined by the square footage of the space.

The governor is giving counties an opening to live under fewer restrictions by bringing down Covid cases and infection rates. The governor categorized counties by risk – extreme, high, moderate and low. 

Indoor dining, for example, would be possible in counties rated at high risk or lower. Fifteen counties, mostly rural eastern Oregon locales, would be allowed to make that move at the end of next week.

“The framework is intended to establish sustainable protection measures for Oregonians in counties with rapid spread of Covid-19 while balancing the economic needs of families and businesses in the absence of a federal aid package,” Brown said in a prepared statement Wednesday afternoon.

The governor’s new measures for business and social gatherings closely follow those already being used by Oregon’s school districts to pick how local students can be educated. The key measures are the rate of Covid cases per 100,000 people, and the percentage of Covid tests turning up positive – all over a 14-day period. The case rate will put most counties into the high risk category.

(Graphic by Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Marion County now has a rate of 437 Covid cases per 100,000 residents over the two weeks ending Nov. 21, according to Oregon Health Authority, more than double the threshold to fall into the “high risk” category under the guidelines. 

To hit that target, Marion County would have to record no more than 695 cases of Covid in the next two weeks. In the past week, the county has reported 820 new Covid cases.

Polk County is at 322 cases per 100,000 residents currently. To fall into the “high risk” category, it would have to record no more than 172 new Covid cases in the next two weeks. In the past week, it’s recorded 169 new cases.

The freeze, announced Nov. 13, went into effect Nov. 18 as Marion County and the rest of Oregon were reporting rapidly rising infections of Covid and Oregon set records for Covid patients hospitalized.

Brown said she was acting to preserve hospital capacity, particularly in the Portland Metro area, where doctors from local hospitals said they needed the public’s help to avoid ICUs filling up with critically ill Covid patients.

Health officials cautioned it would take time for any impact to be felt, since people can take up to two weeks to develop symptoms after being infected with Covid.

In the week since, Marion County has recorded a record 820 new Covid cases, out of 8,649 total since the pandemic began, with 6.5% resulting in hospitalization. Twenty-three county residents have died from Covid so far in November, outpacing previous records of 21 deaths each for June and July.

Testing levels have stayed roughly the same since late October even as cases have climbed rapidly.

Polk County has also seen a rise in cases, with 169 reported since Nov. 18, out of 1,124 total. Sixteen of those have died.

While many of those diagnosed are young and less likely to become seriously ill, Salem-area hospitalizations have also climbed. As of Nov. 24, there were 79 Covid-positive patients hospitalized in region 2, the Mid-Willamette Valley, where Salem Hospital is the primary hospital. That’s up from 53 on the day the freeze went into effect.

Local hospitals haven’t said they’re in danger of being overrun, but have repeatedly urged residents to follow health guidelines and avoid social gatherings to keep the virus’ spread at bay.

The increase in cases prompted the Salem-Keizer School District to drastically scale back its in-person help for local students last week after thousands of kids had been allowed into schools in small groups or solo to get help with online school.

After announcing she would enact the freeze, Brown also made $55 million in grants available to help restaurants. The money will be distributed by county governments. 

As of Wednesday morning, Marion County was still putting together its grant program. 

The Oregon Employment Department hasn’t estimated how many jobs could be affected at the local level by the governor’s order. 

But Gail Krumenauer, an economist at the state Employment Department, estimated that 51,000 jobs  are at high risk for layoff because of the freeze. The vast majority of those jobs, 48,000, are in restaurants and bars. The other 3,000 jobs are spread out in businesses such as fitness centers, bowling alleys, movie theaters and others.  

Tom Hoffert, executive director of the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, called on Salem residents to support the area’s beleaguered restaurants. He said that they should give restaurant gift cards as holiday gifts, leave positive reviews on Facebook, Yelp and Google for their favorite eateries and to pick up takeout instead of using delivery apps.

SUPPORT ESSENTIAL REPORTING FOR SALEM – A subscription starts at $5 a month for around-the-clock access to stories and email alerts sent directly to you. Your support matters. Go HERE.