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Oregon Lawmakers Consider Swift Action To Address Virus Outbreak

<p>The Oregon Capitol is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Salem, Ore.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

The Oregon Capitol is pictured Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2019, in Salem, Ore.

As they prepare to take swift action to combat the coronavirus pandemic, Oregon lawmakers are considering a sweeping array of ideas: from suspending evictions across the state, to deferring business taxes, to allowing restaurants to mix cocktails to-go.

Precisely what steps the Legislature will take, if it convenes for a special session as expected in coming weeks, remain unclear. But on Friday, a special committee convened to address the rapid spread of COVID-19 began to weigh its options.

“We’re not going to be able to do all of them,” said state Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, a co-chair of the Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response. “There’s just no doubt of that.”

In broad strokes, the options lawmakers are considering are aimed at helping residents disadvantaged by the pandemic, stabilizing impacted businesses, and trying to ensure the state’s health care system is not overrun as known cases of the disease continue to expand in the state.

Some options on the table:

— A statewide moratorium on residential and commercial evictions, potentially paired with rent and mortgage assistance from state coffers. Gov. Kate Brown has signaled she is looking at an eviction moratorium as well.

— Money for state utilities to help subsidize services for low-income households and small businesses.

— Clawing back hundreds of millions of dollars from the state school fund to bolster the state’s $5 billion unemployment insurance fund, which is among the best-funded in the nation. The money lawmakers have in mind was awarded to schools via the state’s “kicker” refund on corporate income taxes. Such a move would require the approval of two-thirds of lawmakers.

— Pausing workers compensation payments and waiving unemployment insurance contributions for businesses during the crisis

—Requiring banks to offer 0% interest business loans

— Allowing bars and restaurants, which have been forced to largely shutter by Brown, to sell cocktails to-go.

Republican lawmakers in the House put forward their own list of options Friday, including a call for the state to defer a new commercial activities tax on state businesses, delay planned increases of the minimum wage, and roll back a mandatory 5-cent fee on paper grocery bags in the state.

While the committee discussed many of the provisions in a four-hour meeting Friday, not much clarity emerged on which options would be deemed most pressing. Lawmakers repeatedly suggested that they were likely to convene for several special sessions in coming months, as the shifting nature of the pandemic highlights the need for additional measures or funding.

“I’d be stunned if we have fewer than three this year,” said state Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Portland.

As it seeks out ways to address the crisis, the legislature is partially flying blind. While the state has healthy cash reserves it can pull from, lawmakers won’t know for months how deeply an anticipated $1.1 billion ending fund for this budget cycle has been impacted by the coronavirus crisis.

That could create difficulties as lawmakers weigh how much they can send to state agencies, and also await clarity on how much help is coming from the federal government.

“We know how much money we have in theory, but we don’t know what the next forecast is going to be,” said Steiner Hayward, one of three chairs of the state’s budget committee. “I don’t know that it’s possible to come up with a hard number for that.”

At the same time as they’re grappling with possible actions, lawmakers were also confronted with the possible toll the virus could take. Officials from Oregon Health and Science University laid out modeling for the committee that suggests the state’s hospitals could be overrun with severe COVID-19 cases in coming weeks.

The models, officials said, were not quite worst-case scenarios, but close. They assume that cases of the disease will double in Oregon every 6.2 days — and that roughly 20% of cases will require hospitalization.

“Hospital beds and intensive care units will be full and difficult decisions will need to be made about patient placements and other health care needs,” said OHSU President Danny Jacobs, describing a worst-case scenario his organization is planning for. “Physicians, nurses and staff will become exhausted and many may become sick themselves, further increasing the workload for those still caring for patients.”

According to the models, COVID-19 patients could require 1,000 acute-care hospital beds and 400 intensive care unit beds by April 16. As of Friday afternoon, the Oregon Health Authority had reported just 114 confirmed cases of the disease in the state and Josephine County had reported one other.

Officials were clear that their models could be influenced by “social distancing” measures enacted by Gov. Kate Brown since March 12, and that the reality could be less severe than their predictions. That won’t become clear for weeks, according to Dr. Peter Graven, OHSU’s lead data scientist.

For that reason, OHSU doctors strongly suggested that Brown should enact “shelter-in-place” orders that have emerged in California, New York, and Illinois this week. Brown has been reticent to make such an order, instead urging citizens to remain indoors whenever possible, and to stay away from others.

“Curfews and shelter-in-place orders like other cities may seem extreme, but we should be considering them at this moment,” said Dr. Renee Edwards, OHSU’s chief medical officer. “I implore all Oregonians to present a unified front in this matter and stay at home against the threat of COVID-19.”

Lawmakers on the coronavirus committee are not convinced Oregonians are getting the message.

State Sen. Kathleen Taylor said people were “out and about” in the sunshine around her Southeast Portland home. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, described seeing large groups of people playing “beer pong” in their front yards around her home.

“Should I tell my constituents that it is time for beer pong to end?” asked Gelser.

The OHSU doctors agreed that she should.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.