Church, teens, markets: What happens when you’re reported for COVID violations

Special Reports

Oregonians have eagerly reported one another for alleged violations of Gov. Brown's orders, but what happens next?

The Fred Meyer store in Canby, as seen June 2018 (Google Maps)

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — The Happy Valley Farmers Market started its season late because of concerns about the coronavirus. When they did open on May 9, owner Jamie El-Khal said vendors and staff were a little nervous.

“The majority of our customers were like, ‘This is a nice normalcy, we’re so happy you’re open, we’re so happy to be here,'” El-Khal said. “But we had a couple of complaints, like how could people not wear masks … social distancing.” One of those complaints made it’s way to the county agency tasked with following up on reported violations of Governor Kate Brown’s executive orders related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

El-Khal is one of thousands of business owners and other Oregonians who have been reported to government agencies in the past two months.

A parking lot “completely full” of cars outside a Tualatin-area church, people playing disc golf at Wilsonville’s Memorial Park, crowded Bottle Drop locations, someone posting pictures of a camping trip, people fishing at Meldrum Bar Park, and “teenagers and organized groups” playing football at a closed stadium were among the dozens of reports sent to Clackamas County Environmental Health in April and May.

“As a whole, the businesses really do want to comply, the businesses really want to provide safe environments for their employees,” Environmental Health Program Manager Julie Hamilton said, acknowledging that there’s been “a bit of a learning curve” with the regulations.

The bar graph above shows how many COVID-related complaints were made in each city between April and May 18. One man emailed to report a salon in Riverview, Florida after he said his wife went there and saw “improper spacing.” Environmental health employees responded and suggested he contact the local health authority for that ZIP code.

Businesses in and around Canby popped up on the report records the most time, with 10 complaints. Mayor Brian Hodson said that surprised him, but he doesn’t necessarily think that says anything about the business climate or citizen attitudes in his city.

“I think it’s just people being concerned and making sure that people are following guidelines that were put out from the governor,” Hodson said.

Pat’s Acres Racing Complex, located just outside Canby city limits, was reported to environmental health five times, beginning in late April when the sheriff’s office reportedly “received several complaints” about a large gathering of people.

Fred Meyer was tied for most complaints (primarily relating to crowded stores and lack of one-way aisles) though its five reports were spread out over four cities. A spokesperson for the company provided KOIN 6 News a statement saying the company has implemented a number of safety measures including employee wellness checks (including temperature checks) at the start of each shift, requiring associates to wear masks, plexiglass barriers, capacity limits in every store, social distancing signage around the store, and more.

Investigation, education, enforcement

County environmental health employees are tasked with investigating complaints, which starts with a phone call to the facility or business where the county explains the rules. Generally, that’s enough to solve the problem, Hamilton said, or determine that there was not in fact a violation.

El-Khal got the phone call, and said the county employee was “very pleasant” while going over the complaint.

“We opened on the 9th, so there were a couple issues where vendors were not wearing masks,” Ell-Khal said, adding that at the time it wasn’t mandatory. Rules changed by the next week, and the farmers market told its vendors to mask up, she added.

The Happy Valley Farmers Market opened for the season on May 9, 2020 (Happy Valley Farmers Market/Facebook)

Happy Valley Public Safety Director Steve Campbell said the farmers market faced a “perfect storm” opening on a sunny Mother’s Day weekend. Local code enforcement officers also heard complaints, but said they were delivered with the intent to see safety changes, not to get the market shut down.

Code enforcement officers in Happy Valley have been out in full force since mid-March, performing hundreds of inspections.

“Everyone that we have come in contact with has been happy to make the changes,” he said, adding that his office has not had to issue any citations so far.

None of the county environmental health officers are deputized, according to Hamilton, which means they can’t issue citations. They’re left to send warning letters and refer violators to other agencies like the Oregon Health Authority, the sheriff’s office, local police, or Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which has been fielding a deluge of complaints.

Since the COVID-19 response started, spokesperson Leah Andrews said OSHA has received more than 4,200 complaints related to the executive orders. The agency normally gets about 1,200 complaints in an entire year, she said.

Of those 4,200 complaints, OSHA has “initiated fewer than four dozen investigations,” Andrews said, adding that employees have done more than 3,000 spot checks to see if businesses are in compliance.

Whittle that down even further, and OSHA has issued just four citations that have resulted in fines, Andrews said. Those are against Glamour Salon in Salem, Casey’s Restaurant in Roseburg, Northwest Office Liquidators (for offering curbside pickup), and National Frozen Foods. Several more citations could be coming, but OSHA does not comment on pending enforcement activity.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Andrews said in regards to the low number of citations. “Most of the businesses that we’ve been reaching out to and talking with have been completely receptive to having to change the way that they do things in order to keep their workers and to keep other people safe.”

Continuing Coverage: Coronavirus

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