Customers browse through the Thursday West Salem Farmer's Market on Edgewater Street. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Beginning Friday, pandemic restrictions will be a little more relaxed west of the Willamette River in Salem. 

Polk County, which includes west Salem, will move from the state’s “high risk” category to “moderate risk” after seeing a decline in Covid cases and the percentage of positive tests. However, Marion County will remain in the high-risk category.  

“We are just so thrilled that we are able to see a little sunlight come out from behind the clouds,” said Polk County Commissioner Craig Pope. 

While more people will be allowed in gyms, restaurants and churches, Pope said it won’t mark a drastic change in daily life. But he said the eased restrictions will provide “a little more normalcy” for residents. He said Polk County residents should still exercise caution. 

Under the new set of restrictions, Polk County residents will be allowed to hold gatherings of up to eight people indoors, up from the previous six. 

While indoor dining is already allowed in high-risk counties, Polk County’s new categorization means that restaurants can use half their capacity or 100 people (whichever is smaller). That’s an increase from the previous cap of 25% of occupancy or 50 people (whichever is smaller). Outdoor dining capacity is also increased from 75 to 150. 

Gyms and theaters can increase their capacity to 50% or 100 people (whichever is smaller), up from the 25% or 50 people previously allowed. Retailers can increase to 75% occupancy up from 50%. Churches can now use half their capacity, up from 25% or 150 people (whichever is smaller).

Closing time is still 11 p.m. for bars, restaurants and theaters. Masks are still required. 

Marion County’s current set of restrictions will remain in place even though it’s just across the Willamette River, effectively creating two sets of restrictions for Salem.  

Pope said he’s not concerned about two sets of regulations creating confusion because businesses are well aware of what’s expected of them and that they will be held accountable. 

Polk and Marion counties were linked as the governor began her phased reopening last spring and summer. 

Brown again ordered restaurants and gyms around the state to close and other businesses to reduce capacity last November as Covid infections spiked across the state. She tied reopening to the number of new Covid cases reported in a county over a two-week period, and the share of positive Covid tests.

Liz Merah, the governor’s spokeswoman, said in an email the current framework is based on Covid spread by county “to create more consistency and alignment as we work through the reopening process.”

“Regardless of the county they live in, Salem residents should continue to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and get vaccinated when they are eligible,” she said.

The relaxed regulations come after Polk County saw its rate of recorded Covid infections drop by half over the past month. 

According to data published Monday by the Oregon Health Authority, there were 121 reported cases of Covid in Polk County between Feb. 21 and March 6. That dropped to 75 for the following two-week period and 60 the next. The county’s test positivity rate also dropped from 4% to 2% during this time period.

The percentage of positive Covid tests is a rough indicator of how widespread the virus is in the community. 

Marion County’s numbers rose slightly in the most-recent two-week period after declining for most of 2021, and the county will remain in the high-risk category. Between Feb. 21 and March 6, there were 460 new Covid cases in Marion County. The following two-week period saw a decrease to 408 new cases, followed by a rise to 438 for the two weeks ending March 20. During that time the test positivity rate dropped from 3.6% to 3.4% and then rose to 3.9%.

To enter the moderate category, Marion County needs to have no more than 100 new Covid cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days.

“As we work to open up vaccine eligibility to all Oregonians by May 1, we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel get a little brighter,” said Gov. Kate Brown in a statement on Tuesday announcing Polk County’s new categorization. But she still encouraged Oregonians to wear masks, maintain physical distance and get vaccinated when it’s their turn. 

Brown, in her statement, applauded how a majority of Oregon counties will now be in the moderate or lower risk categories. Effective Friday, there will be two counties in the extreme risk six at high risk, 14 at moderate and 14 at lower risk. 

The categories will be revisited every two weeks. 

Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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