PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — A group of Eastern Oregon county commissioners met unannounced Thursday, June 11, in Prairie City to share common frustrations over Gov. Kate Brown’s closures amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fed up with Brown’s unilateral authority to reopen the state and control how federal aid money will be disbursed, representatives from seven Eastern Oregon counties strategized about getting their voices heard in Salem and discussed what the consequences of standing up to the governor might be.
Commissioners from Grant, Lake, Deschutes, Wallowa, Harney, Union and Jefferson counties agreed county health departments should determine when counties are able to open and establish local guidelines.
Dubbed an “information seminar,” organized by Lake County Commissioner Mark Albertson, the event was not announced to the public or the media. Reporters from the Blue Mountain Eagle and Oregon Public Broadcasting negotiated their way into the event as some of the representatives were reluctant to enter the Prairie City Visitors Center.
“We did not know the press was showing up,” Albertson said. “It’s spooky, and it’s, to be honest with you, it’s spooky because all of us have been burned.”
Grant County Commissioner Sam Palmer said after the meeting he believes rural people and viewpoints are often mocked in the press and not taken seriously, much like he believes state leaders in Salem ignore rural sentiments.
“I guess the main point is we’re being culturally oppressed, because, I mean in rural counties, not one county in a rural area has received any money and very little help,” Albertson said at Thursday’s meeting. “And none of us have had direct contact with the governor.”
The meeting came to be after months of conference calls with state health officials and growing frustrations with the governor’s guidelines to combat the coronavirus outbreak that have wreaked havoc on local economies.
The tipping point, said Albertson, came after a recent conference call with the Oregon Association of Counties and the Oregon Health Authority. On the call, he said, a representative from a county asked if protesters, primarily in Portland, would be contact-traced. According to Albertson, a health official on the call said that the protesters’ cause was just and the state would not infringe upon their rights to peacefully protest.
The demonstrations in response to the death of George Floyd — a black man who died May 25 after Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes — have occurred in rural and urban communities across the state. However, the commissioners focused primarily on large demonstrations in Portland where large crowds violated the governor’s guidelines for social distancing.
Wallowa County Commissioner Susan Roberts said an official, whom she did not identify, told her the state would “deal with it” if they saw an uptick in positive COVID-19 cases as a result of the protests.
“In other words, you can protest, but we can’t go to church,” Albertson said in an email to the commissioners after the Health Authority call. “You can protest but can’t go to a ball game, you can protest, but you can’t have a fair or rodeo.”
Harney County Commissioner Kristen Shelman said the “top-down” approach of the governor’s executive order does not sit well with rural residents. She said she was specifically concerned about the governor’s guidelines requiring a COVID-19 vaccine or treatment before the final stage of opening, and possible requirements for vaccination.
“Within that executive order, we should all be rounded up and given the vaccine without our permission,” she said.
“And it goes right back to the cultural oppression,” Albertson said. “That is definitely culture. Us on this side of the mountain are not treated the same.”
The commissioners said having to cancel their county fairs because of the guidelines has a big impact on rural communities.
“The fair is the one thing that brings all of our counties together,” Palmer said.
Other commissioners pointed to canceled graduations, closed schools and rules about reopening businesses, which, they said, face unique challenges in rural areas.
Roberts said she wrote a letter asking Brown’s office to lift all restrictions in Wallowa County by June 30. The county leaders went back and forth on a date and said each should be able to determine their own reopening guidelines.
Hamsher said the counties should wait a couple of weeks to see if the wave of protests would lead to a surge in cases. Many people who contract the disease remain asymptomatic for as much as two weeks.
He said he hoped the state did not see an uptick. “If we don’t, then we might have more of a justification to open back up,” he said.
According to Oregon’s phased reopening plans, many activities can resume with limited social gatherings under Phase 2, which most counties in Eastern Oregon are in. The third and final phase of reopening would bring the state back to normal, but it is not an option for any county until vaccination or treatment is available under the governor’s guidelines.
Albertson said he questions the reporting data coming from the state’s health authority. He said he did the math and the chances of dying from COVID-19 are very low.
Roberts said the counties took the pandemic seriously and did everything the state asked them to do.
“We are prepared to meet the challenge in our community,” she said. “Our medical people say they’re ready, they’re prepared.”
The county representatives said they want their respective health departments to be the authority, rather than relying on one-size-fits-all guidance from the governor.
Hours after the meeting, the governor’s office announced that it was putting a hold on reopening the state after 178 new cases were reported Thursday, according to the the Health Authority’s website. Half of those cases were in Multnomah and Clackamas counties. Only eight of those cases were in the seven counties represented at Thursday’s meeting.
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