County applies for phase two

An Oregon Health Authority graphic shows counties in the state by reopening phase and watch list status.

NEWPORT — On Monday, the Lincoln County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 to immediately apply for phase two of the state’s reopening framework, with a target date of Aug. 24.

After Gov. Kate Brown removed Lincoln County from the state watch list of counties with a high level of sporadic cases of COVID-19, removing a key barrier to the county’s advancement to the next phase of reopening, commissioners added discussion of a phase two application to their Aug. 3 agenda.

County Counsel Wayne Belmont has maintained a working application for phase two since the county entered phase one on May 15, and on Monday, he detailed the criteria needed to progress. He said the county would need to meet testing and contact-tracing criteria similar to those for entering phase one and would be evaluated by public health indicators monitored by the Oregon Health Authority. The county currently meets four of six indicators, Belmont said — its percent increase in new cases during the previous seven days was too high — 22 percent, as opposed to 5 percent or below — and too many of those cases could not be tracked to a known source, 45 percent as opposed to 30.

Belmont said failing to meet those criteria did not automatically bar the county’s application. He explained what would change under phase two, pointing to the principal difference that places like movie theaters, bowling alleys and swimming pools would be allowed to reopen. The counsel said the phase two application was different than applying for phase one, in that applicants for phase two could specify the date on which they hoped to move forward.

Lincoln County Public Health Director Rebecca Austen said the list of locations that would reopen under phase two was concerning, “because it’s more people being together and probably not able to social distance, so, of course, it means higher rates of transmission, potentially. So I feel like if we could stall this a few more weeks, that would make me happy. I don’t feel like our trend is stable when we have four new cases one day and zero cases another. I would like to see our trend be more consistent.”

Commissioner Claire Hall said, after struggling with the idea since the governor’s announcement removing Lincoln County from the watch list, she was leaning toward making the phase two application. “I think we have been cautionary throughout this. We were the very first local government entity in Oregon to do a face-covering mandate, we were one of the last counties to enter phase one, and even if we do move forward sometime in the near future, we’ll be one of the last to enter phase two,” Hall said. She said she understood reluctance about moving forward expressed by her constituents, given the rising case count, but “in addition to health and safety, my number one concern, and the economy, my secondary concern, a third one that maybe we don’t talk about as much … the emotional fabric of the community, if people can go see a movie again, go roll a few lanes at the local bowling alley, if kids can go back to their skate parks again, I’m thinking maybe it’s a little social, emotional release valve. We’ll never have the perfect crystal ball,” she said.

Chair Kaety Jacobson said, “I really want this county, regardless of what phase we’re in, to not flip-flop back and forth. I think that’s really detrimental for a number of reasons.” She said she was pleased with local efforts, including some additional restrictions, that had kept the county in phase one, “and I guess I just need to be honest with everybody that if we do make it into phase two, we again may need to take out tools to help us stay in there. We might have to make some of our own restrictions or things like we’ve done in the past to make sure we’re not flip-flopping back and forth.”

Commissioner Doug Hunt said he didn’t believe the county has good enough data on the local prevalence of the virus. “I think we were very close to going back to baseline when we had the outbreak at the seafood processing plant, and I agree, to go backwards would be far more devastating than the impact of remaining in phase one. I think we have trends going in the correct direction. I think it would be wise to continue to stay in phase one. There isn’t a lot of difference between phase one and phase two.”

Hunt pointed to Umatilla County, which was recently regressed by the governor to baseline, stay-home status and also had an outbreak at a food processing facility. Umatilla was moved back, Hunt said, “not because of the outbreak at their food processing plant, but because the community transmission of the virus has become so widespread, and that, frankly, is the fear that I have.”

Jacobson said, “I have real mixed feelings. I don’t even know that we’d be approved at this point, which gives me even bigger mixed feelings, because if we barely get approved, I’m not sure that’s the smart choice. I feel like I would be OK with putting in an application now but picking a date several weeks out,” allowing the county to evaluate developments in the meantime.

Hall moved to direct Belmont to make an application for phase two as soon as possible with an effective date of Aug. 24, three weeks from the meeting. Jacobson and Hall both voted yes to the motion, and Hunt voted no. The application had not been submitted as of press time Tuesday afternoon. County Public Information Officer Casey Miller said it would likely be submitted on Wednesday.

Lincoln is one of five counties in Oregon still in phase one, along with those in the Portland metro area, Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington, and Morrow County was moved back from phase two at the same time the governor regressed Umatilla to baseline.