PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas are among 12 counties whose risk levels have been lowered in the latest update from Oregon Governor Kate Brown.

Gov. Brown announced the counties’ improved risk levels on Tuesday, including 10 that have been lowered from Extreme Risk for the first time since November. Those lowered from Extreme Risk to the High Risk category include Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Deschutes, Hood River, Klamath, Linn, Multnomah and Washington.

Morrow County was also moved down from Extreme and is now considered Moderate Risk. Baker and Grant, previously Moderate Risk, have both been moved down to Lower Risk.

Harney and Lake counties, however, have moved up to Moderate Risk from Lower Risk.

The new risk levels will take effect this Friday, February 12 and will remain in place through February 25. A total of 14 counties still sit in the Extreme Risk level, 11 in High Risk, three in Moderate Risk and eight in Lower Risk. 

For a full list of counties, click here.

“Thanks to Oregonians who have stepped up and made smart choices, we have made incredible progress in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and saving lives in Oregon,” Brown said in a press release. “This is welcome news, as we’ll start to see more businesses open up and Oregonians being able to get out a bit more.”

This news comes after the latest data from the Oregon Health Authority. However, while the percentage of positivity has dropped in the metro area, the rate of transmission is still teetering in the danger zone.

“It’s also incredibly important that we continue to remain vigilant and protect our neighbors and loved ones as we face virulent new strains of COVID-19,” Brown said. “This means continuing to wear masks, keep our physical distance, and avoid indoor gatherings. If we want to keep businesses open, reopen schools for in-person instruction, and stay safe, we must keep up our guard. Until vaccines are more widely available, case counts could go back up if we don’t keep following safety measures.”

Regional Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines echoed Brown’s statement, saying that although this is an improvement, there is still cause for concern.

“We can take these incremental steps because people have stepped up and done hard work. Our numbers have been dropping to reflect that,” Vines said. “And even as we celebrate our successes, and our numbers are heading in the right direction, that trend is fragile.”

People wearing masks inside Planet Fitness in Vancouver, January 10, 2021 (KOIN)

The Extreme Risk category is the most restrictive: indoor dining is not allowed and gyms and entertainment venues are strictly limited in capacity.

But now that the metro area counties were to move down to High Risk, restaurants in the area could have some indoor dining and gyms could slightly increase the number of people they let inside.

Full description of risk level guidance:

Re-opening a double-edged sword

At first glance, you might assume restaurants would be ecstatic to reopen. But the truth is they realize they’ve been shut down for safety reasons. Some said the idea of working indoors in a maskless environment without being vaccinated is a serious threat to their health and to their families.

Some restaurant workers said they’re extremely uncomfortable working indoors in such settings, but would be more comfortable if the staff was vaccinated.

“It’s impossible to stay six feet away in the kitchen,” said Cathy Whims, the co-owner and chef of Nostrana.

To reduce contact and follow COVID protocols, they’ve cut the number of people in their kitchen from 12 down to 3 or 4.

Whims’ coworker, Natalia Toral is the assistant general manager, events coordinator and now — in COVID-19 — the safety coordinator.

Despite the potential for restaurants to have indoor dining in the near future, Toral said there is still community spread and the risk of catching COVID is very high.

“Sure, there’s money coming down the pipeline for some people, but what is the point if it isn’t really going to stop the spread of the disease?” Toral questioned. “You could save your business, but if you’re open and it’s an unsafe environment, I just feel like that is just a really big miss here.”

Katy Connors of the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon said the organization is frustrated OHA is not including Oregon’s restaurant workers in the “essential workers” category.

Katy Connors with the Independent Restaurant Alliance of Oregon (Courtesy photo December 2020)

“I think it’s devastating to people because it’s like these business owners are having to make these decisions; do I do 25% dining and potentially save my business, or do I risk my life?” said Katy Connors with the IRAO. “Do I risk my life and the life of my workers? That’s the conversations that are going to start happening.”

Connors added Oregon needs to look at the restaurant industry from a safety, economic and equity standpoint. The restaurant industry makes up 10% of Oregon’s workforce, which is a diverse group of people disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, she said.

By including them in the prioritization of the vaccine rollout, Connors said it can make a positive impact in three areas the state said they’re trying to target.

The COVID-19 Vaccine Advisory Committee (VAC) has completed its work and completed its final public meeting on Jan. 28

“The VAC was convened with the intent of centering equity in all vaccine sequencing decisions and helping OHA reach its strategic goal to eliminate health inequities by 2030,” OHA Public Affairs Specialist Rudy Owens, wrote in an email to KOIN 6.

On Jan. 28, the VAC delivered its recommendations for vaccine sequencing along with a statement of intention. The VAC acknowledges structural racism and its impacts the health of Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) communities, Owens wrote. 

OHA is still working with the Governor’s office to operationalize the VAC recommendations. OHA said final sequencing decisions will be made available on covidvaccine.oregon.gov.