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COVID Spike In Oregon Triggers 'Pause' In Further Reopenings

After approving 31 Oregon counties for Phase 1 reopening four weeks ago, and then allowing 26 of those to open further to Phase 2, last week, Gov. Kate Brown is slamming the brakes on further relaxing of rules she put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Her decision comes the same day that the Oregon Health Authority announced the most new cases in a single day since the start of the pandemic, and on the eve of Multnomah County's desired move to Phase 1. Of 178 new confirmed or presumptive cases announced statewide Thursday, nearly a quarter were in Multnomah County. 

In a statement released Thursday night, as residents and business owners in Multnomah County were hoping to advance into Phase 1, Brown declared a “pause” of any status changes. 

“In order to ensure that the virus is not spreading too quickly, I am putting all county applications for further reopening on hold for seven days,” Brown said in a statement. “This is essentially a statewide 'yellow light.' It is time to press pause for one week before any further reopening.”

Affected applications include Multnomah County’s move to Phase 1, which would have allowed the limited reopening of restaurants and bars in Portland, as well as personal services such as salons, gyms and malls. Phase 1 also allows small gatherings of people outside a person’s immediate household. 

Oregon’s most urban and populous county is the last in the state to still have maximum restrictions in place. Those will remain in place for at least another week, according to the governor’s statement. 

The governor’s summary of COVID-19 case information ticked off three problematic trends in Multnomah County: An increase in hospitalizations, a rise in the share of tests that are coming back positive and a significant number of cases — 40% — that can’t be traced back to a source.

Statewide, new cases have nearly doubled over the past two weeks. The Oregon Health Authority tallied 620 new cases from June 1 -7, up from 353 cases the week before.

Shortly after the governor’s announcement, Multnomah County sent out its own statement acknowledging that it “must wait to open.” 

“This was not the outcome we anticipated when we submitted our application on June 5,’’ said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury in the county’s Thursday evening statement. “I understand how difficult this is for businesses, employers and families. But the increase in cases and delay in reopening is a reminder that we are very much still in this.’’ 

In addition, Hood River, Marion and Polk counties were all seeking permission to enter Phase 2, which would allow gatherings of up to 50 people indoors, up from 25 people from Phase 1; outdoor gatherings with up to 100 people, as well as later hours of operation for restaurants. Their applications are also on hold for at least one week. 

State public health officials said the rise in new cases may be due in part to record levels of testing and contact tracing identifying cases that might have been missed earlier in the outbreak. But they also cautioned that opening up parts of the economy in May had likely increased transmission of the virus.

"As I am out and about, I am nervous that people have a tendency to think that moving in to phase 1 or phase 2 is going back to the way things were before the pandemic began. And nothing could be further from the truth," Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen said.

Allen said re-opening will only be successful if people take care to avoid transmitting the virus.  That means washing your hands, wearing a mask, and staying more than 6 feet away from others.

This story will be updated.

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Rob Manning is a JPR content partner from Oregon Public Broadcasting. Rob has reported extensively on Oregon schools and universities as OPB's education reporter and is now a news editor.