By TED TAYLOR
CENTRAL OREGON DAILY NEWS
The Bend-La Pine School Board has asked Deschutes County, City of Bend and other local agencies to impose “formal restrictions on tourism and businesses” to bring down COVID infections and help get students back into the classroom sooner.
In a letter also addressed to the Bend Police chief, Deschutes County Sheriff, and Oregon Liquor Control Commission, the school board thanked the agencies for what they’ve been doing to crack down on the current restrictions.
But more needed to be done to stem the tide of rising cases locally.
“If our local elected leadership is not unified in its desire to step up to help get our kids back in school, then we will attempt to form a cross-agency leadership group with those who are willing to develop a plan to bring to the community,” the letter reads.
COVID cases have skyrocketed in Deschutes County over the last month.
Cases have jumped from 54 the week of October 4th to 193 cases last week.
Now, the county is nowhere near close to meeting much more lenient metrics released by the state two weeks ago and the rising cases offer little hope students and teachers can safely return to class any time soon.
“As the fifth-largest district in Oregon and second-largest employer in Central Oregon, we cannot send tens of thousands of students and staff back into schools with rising COVID-19 cases in our region,” the letter reads. “Oregon Department of Education reopening metrics exist for a reason and our community must develop a stronger plan to reduce cases if we want to be able to safely open schools.”
Gov. Kate Brown last week announced tighter restrictions on indoor dining, social activities and gathering sizes for five Oregon counties that had seen significant jumps in COVID cases and named five additional counties they were keeping an eye on.
Deschutes County wasn’t on either list.
Bend Mayor Sally Russell on Monday night announced an emergency city council meeting on Thursday.
“We all recognize the pressing need to get our schools reopened in Deschutes County,” Russell said in a letter sent to school board members Monday night. “The huge surge in COVID-19 cases these days is especially worrisome and reducing cases and staying off of the State of Oregon watch list must be a huge priority for us.”
Earlier in the day in an interview with Central Oregon Daily, she said she wanted to make sure everyone had the most accurate, current data from Deschutes County Health and clear guidance on what the city could do.
“If we’re going to make policy we need to make sure it hits where it needs to hit and we don’t hurt any other members or businesses in our community because those are jobs we need and incomes we need,” she said. “I know everybody needs their kids to get back to school. This is a difficult moment. We’re all struggling with this.”
The virtual meeting will take place at noon and include presentations from Deschutes County Health Director Dr. George Conway and Deputy Director Nihad Sadr-Azod.
Bend City Manager Eric King’s most recent administrative order discouraging travel to the area expired in late October.
The order, which initially went into effect in March and was extended in May and July and September, asked hoteliers and other lodging partners to “strongly refrain” from booking new rooms to tourists.
County Commissioners discussed the school board’s letter and the governor’s recent actions during its meeting on Monday but didn’t take any action.
County Administrator Tom Anderson called it “obviously a difficult conversation” because it forces the county to balance the desire to address the surge in cases with the lability of acting beyond what the state has already done.
“It puts us in a difficult position,” he told commissioners.
The school board’s letter calls on the police, Sheriff’s Office and OLCC to “actively use all methods available” to make sure everyone is adhering to current guidelines.
“Including holding businesses accountable for maintaining required physical distancing, health screening, and mask-wearing and breaking up residential parties that are not following state COVID-19 restrictions,” the letter said.
The OLCC last week stripped a Bend nightclub of its liquor license for repeated violations of COVID mask and social distancing rules.
And county health officials have said most local businesses are following the guidelines as best they can.
“One option for the board to consider would be increased attention to businesses that may be particularly at risk,” Anderson told county commissioners. “And focusing our efforts on where we truly believe there is a risk as opposed to a blanket decision that would affect…catch up all businesses… in a net that may be designed for certain bad actors.”
The letter acknowledges there would be pushback to any new restrictions, but urged the local leaders to put children ahead of all else.
“Now is not the time to become even more divided and divisive,” it reads. “We can conquer this obstacle if we come together as a community to propose a community-wide plan for getting our students back into school. We believe our intentions are aligned and we look forward to continuing to work together towards a common goal.”
You can read the full letter below:Bend La Pine School Board letter to City Leaders.v2