Fourth of July and Summer Harvest Could Put Oregonians At Risk

Over the weekend, Oregon saw three consecutive days of more than 200 new cases of COVID-19. The state recently completed its initial reopening process when Multnomah County entered phase one on June 19. The rise of weekend barbecues and several active outbreaks at Oregon farms indicate the state may be facing a gargantuan task mitigating a new spike COVID-19 cases in the state — a report from the Oregon Health Authority projects that the rate of new cases could be as high as 5,030 per day in less than a month — and there are more potentially high-risk events around the corner, including Fourth of July events and the beginning of harvest season.

Last week, the governor’s office hinted that Oregon businesses may shut down once again if things continue on this trajectory. “Oregon businesses will not be able to stay open unless we reduce the spread of the disease,” spokesperson Liz Merah said in a statement. “If Oregonians want their local shops, restaurants and cafes to stay open, they need to do more to reduce the spread of the disease.”

Gov. Kate Brown emphasized this point today, in a press release announcing a statewide mask requirement within public indoor spaces. “I do not want to have to close down businesses again like other states are now doing,” Brown said. “If you want your local shops and restaurants to stay open, then wear a face covering when out in public.”

On June 19, Multnomah County joined the 35 other Oregon counties that had begun the reopening process in Portland. Four Oregon counties — Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, and Lincoln — remain in phase-one reopening, which means restaurants can reopen to onsite diners both indoors and outdoors, as long as they close at 10 p.m. The rest of the state’s counties are in phase two reopening, which allows movie theaters, bowling alleys, and arcades to reopen, and allows restaurants and bars to stay open until midnight.

For four weeks, the number of new cases in the state has increased compared to the week before, and since early June, Oregon watched cases climb more significantly than they had in the previous months: On June 7, the case count jumped to 146 new cases in a single day, 53 more than the day before. By the 19th, when Multnomah County started to reopen, the state announced 206 new confirmed cases. Since then, the daily number of new cases have stayed above 100 each day; over the weekend, the state announced more than 500 new cases.

In other states around the country, governors have made decisions to re-institute limitations on businesses. Texas and Florida closed down all of the states’ bars Friday in response to a surge in cases. However, Oregon hasn’t gone so far just yet. Instead, the governor has instituted mask mandates for citizens across the state, requiring face coverings in public spaces like grocery stores and restaurants (when not eating or drinking).

In last week’s report, the Oregon Health Authority noted that “large workplace outbreaks… continue to account for much of the recent case burden.” The majority of active workplace-based outbreaks in Oregon are tied to food businesses, including farms and produce processing plants, and farm worker advocates worry things will continue to get worse.

Townshend Farms has been the site of two separate COVID-19 outbreaks; the most recent, in May, was related to a group of migrant farm workers who likely contracted the virus before entering the state. Oregon’s farmers are reliant on migrant farm workers for the summer harvest, but keeping all of those workers protected — especially in tightly-packed processing plants and farm worker housing — is difficult. The Oregon Occupational Safety and Health division recently enacted temporary, emergency rules to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 in workers’ housing and farm facilities, including a six-feet mandate for farm activities, mandated access to potable drinking water, and a requirement that farmers provide one handwashing facility per every 10 employees. Still, as harvest season begins, advocates are calling for higher testing capacity and outreach within specific farm worker communities. “If you’re picking cabbage, you’re in a truck, people are throwing things at you, and it’s really difficult logistically to be 6 feet apart,” Reyna Lopez, the executive director of the Woodburn-based farmworkers union PCUN, told KGW.

Simultaneously, as the weather improves and summer holidays inspire parties, healthy distancing and mask-wearing becomes a larger challenge in social settings. In today’s press release, Brown noted that if cases increase again, the way they did following Memorial Day, the state could be “in a dangerous position.” Oregon state health officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger is also concerned about Fourth of July, in which many may gather for events. “Think hard about your choice of activities, especially as we get close to the Fourth of July holiday,” he said in a statement. “Ask yourself: how can I reduce my risk and the risk I might pose to people around me?”

If the state decides to re-close, the impact could be extremely difficult for restaurant owners — many are reliant on a significant wave of business to make up for new loans and investments made while shut down. “Reopening a restaurant is a huge cost to owners, especially considering the extra investment in specialized cleaning and protective gear for staff,” Jaya Saxena writes for Eater. “If restaurants and bars are made to reduce capacity again, or shutter outright, the financial strain could close them for good.”

For now, however, Oregon’s counties — and several of its restaurants — remain open. The Oregon Health Authority recommends Oregonians maintain six feet of distance, wear masks, and keep guests of any sort of Fourth of July events, like barbecues or cookouts, outside.

Oregonians Will Be Required to Wear Masks in Bars and Restaurants Statewide [EPDX]
One Week Into Portland’s Reopening, Oregon May Begin to See Exponential Coronavirus Growth [EPDX]
The Majority of Oregon’s Workplace-Related COVID-19 Outbreaks Are at Food Businesses [EPDX]
Farmworker advocates worry Oregon’s protections won’t keep laborers safe from coronavirus as harvest season ramps up [O]
Oregon hits 3rd consecutive day of more than 200 new coronavirus cases [O]
Oregon coronavirus forecast shows ‘alarming’ growth in future infections [O]
Oregon Officials Say COVID-19 Outbreak at Townsend Farms Affects 48 of 350 Newly Arrived Seasonal Workers [WWeek]

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