Gov. Kate Brown listens to an update from the state Employment Department during a revenue briefing on Monday, April 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

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Saying the pandemic situation in Oregon is “extremely dire,” Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday announced that most counties will continue under restrictions through December that limit social gatherings, retailer foot traffic, and restaurant operations but will allow outdoor dining starting next week.

She included Marion and Polk counties in a group of 21 counties at “extreme risk” of the spreading coronavirus. Those counties will face modified versions of the regulations that had been set to expire next week.

Brown and state health authorities unveiled the new plan as Oregonians prepared to close offices and head into the Thanksgiving holiday. The governor again implored Oregonians to limit their gatherings to help stem a virus that is infecting 1,000 people a day and on Wednesday was cited as responsible for 20 more virus-related deaths.

“Covid-19 is rampant in our communities,” Brown said.

 In an hour-long virtual briefing with reporters, Brown and health officials laid out a stark course ahead for Oregon in the coming weeks. They said the only salvation for the state is for Oregonians to act personally to follow health protocols and avoid large holiday gatherings.

Dr. David Zonies, ICU medical director at Oregon Science and Health University in Portland, said that besides his Oregon practice, he has served in the military in Afghanistan. He told of hospitals being strained by growing numbers of Covid patients and the trouble finding enough doctors and nurses to care for those patients.

He said the medical community was asking Oregonians to sacrifice now to stem the surging caseloads.

“Please hold out a little longer,” Zonies said. “Please be a patriot. Please make smart decisions.”

Brown took aim at those who don’t believe the virus is a public health threat.

“When people don’t respect how serious this virus is, and when they act against the recommendations of doctors and public health experts, not only are they putting themselves at risk – they’re putting all of us at risk,” the governor said.

Pat Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said Covid is taking a toll on Oregonians beyond those needing medical care.

“It’s stolen their livelihoods, their homes or their emotional well-being without ever having attacked their bodies,” Allen said.

He said the new rules are intended to blend precaution and pragmatism.

“A healthy community is necessary for a healthy economy,” he said.

The Brown plan looks much like what people in Marion and Polk counties have lived under since Nov. 18, the start of what the governor had described as a “pause” in community and business activity.

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, with no more than six at a table.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon public health officer, said at the briefing that outdoor dining didn’t mean that restaurants could feed people in temporary structures such as tents. He said such structures could be even more prone to spreading the virus.

In counties considered at extreme risk, 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. Under the earlier rules, churches were limited to 25 people indoors or 50 people outside.

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. That’s down from 75% allowed during the pause.

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.

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.

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 patients hospitalized in 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. 

The pandemic numbers for Marion and Polk counties put them in the "extreme risk" column of this new state chart. (Oregon Health Authority chart)

Reporters Jake Thomas and Rachel Alexander contributed to this report.

Contact Editor Les Zaitz by email at [email protected]

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