Effective Friday, May 7, 15 counties, including Columbia County, will return to High Risk. In total, 24 counties will be at High Risk, four at Moderate Risk, and eight at Lower Risk.

Easing Restrictions

Moving back to High Risk means less restrictions for restaurants and gyms in Columbia County.

“Let me be clear: across the state, COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are still high, and Oregon is not out of the woods yet," Governor Kate Brown said. "However, we have met the hospitalization metric established by our health experts for counties to return to High Risk. From the beginning, I have said that returning counties to the Extreme Risk level was about preserving hospital capacity and saving lives.”

Brown said that with the statewide hospitalization rate stabilizing, hospitals should have the capacity to continue treating patients with severe cases of COVID-19 and other serious medical conditions in the coming weeks.

Brown issued the unexpected announcement Tuesday, May 4, to ease the pandemic restrictions for Columbia County, and 14 others, allowing the counties to move back to High Risk under the state's public health framework to reduce transmission and protect Oregonians from COVID-19.

Columbia County had been placed at Extreme High Risk on April 30 due to rising COVID cases and hospitalizations.

The Extreme High Risk classification increased public and businesses health and safety requirements and limitations, including a ban on indoor dinning.

With the statewide seven-day average increase for hospitalized COVID-19 positive patients dropping below 15 percent, Oregon no longer meets the statewide metrics for the Extreme Risk level, according to Brown who added that said she is keeping her commitment to Oregonians.

“With Oregonians continuing to get vaccinated each week, my expectation is that we will not return to Extreme Risk again for the duration of this pandemic,” Brown said.

“I know this will bring relief to many across the state. However, the lifting of Extreme Risk health and safety measures comes with great personal responsibility for us all. If Oregonians continue to keep up their guard, follow High Risk health and safety measures, and get vaccinated as fast as possible, we should see our COVID-19 case and hospitalization rates decline. I’d like to thank Oregonians for taking this surge seriously for the last several weeks. It’s because of you that our hospitals have not been overwhelmed.”

Concerns and criticism

Brown’s announcement follows increasing concern and criticism from elected officials, the hospitality industry, gym owners and others frustrated with the restrictions and limitations of the state’s county risk classifications.

Eighteen elected officials in Columbia County, including Clatskanie Mayor Bob Brajcich and Rainier Mayor Jerry Cole, sent a letter to Brown April 30, expressing their concerns about what they said are the pending closures of businesses impacted by the state's pandemic health and safety county classifications.

"Our neighbors share our frustrations with us," the letter states. "Our business owners come to us with questions about how they will be able to operate under continued restrictions."

The elected officials letter states that many citizens and businesses initially understood the COVID-19 health crisis as it spread across the state last year.

"They were willing to do what they could to help minimize risks to their families and customers," the letter reads. "Their struggles were evident in the emptiness we saw in our commercial corridors for months on end."

The letter said the community job creators have patiently followed the health and safety guidelines and eager to phase-in their operations over time and they invested in their businesses when they were finally allowed to re-open. Staff was brought back and new employees hired to fill vacancies.

"We would ask that instead of emphasizing shutdowns that the state focus its priorities on ensuring the widespread distribution of available vaccines, especially to the rural parts of Oregon," the letter states.

The elected officials letter follows a letter sent last week by the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association and also signed the Columbia County Board of Commissioners and 78 other elected officials, asking Gov. Brown to reconsider the risk classifications.

In response, Brown said during a media briefing April 30 and through a letter to Oregon county officials, that she needed to move forward with the risk classifications in the state’s efforts to slow the pandemic.

"I chose to save lives," Brown said, adding that based on the information at that time concerning virus variants, COVID case increases and hospitalizations, moving Columbia and 14 other counties to Extreme High risk classification was best for the health and safety of Oregonians.

More vaccines

In her May 4 announcement about removing Columbia County and 14 other counties from the Extreme High risk classification, Brown also announced that the Biden-Harris administration will be reallocating unused vaccines to the states that need them.

“Oregon will ask for the maximum allowed, which will help us to get shots in arms faster,” Brown said. “Vaccinations are still our best path to protecting our loved ones, and staying on track to fully reopen our economy by the end of June.”

More walk-in vaccination opportunities are opening up in Columbia County. For more information about vaccinations, contact Columbia County Public Health at 503-397-7247. Columbia County expanded its mass vaccinations on April 23, at the OHSU Scappoose Clinic, at 51377 Southwest Old Portland Road Crossroads Plaza, Unit C, in Scappoose. To reach the clinic, call 503-494-5455.

Follow daily pandemic updates here online with in-depth reports in the Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.

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