By SARA CLINE
SALEM, Ore. (AP) — Gov. Kate Brown announced Wednesday that residents in seven of Oregon’s counties will be required to wear masks at indoor public spaces as COVID-19 social distancing restrictions are tentatively eased.
Multnomah County, the state’s most populous, is among the counties where people will be required to wear masks indoors.
Brown also gave the go-ahead to four counties to enter a new reopening phase, including Multnomah, home to Portland, which had been the only county that had not yet entered phase 1.
These announcements come as the state continues to see a spike in cases. As of Wednesday’s case count, the total number of people who have tested positive for coronavirus in Oregon is 6,218. In addition, one more person died from the disease, raising the state’s death toll to 183.
Last week Brown issued a statewide pause on all county applications to move into a new reopening phase, in order to give health experts “time to assess what factors are driving the spread of the virus and make adjustments to our reopening strategy.”
After an analysis of the growth of new cases, hospitalizations and results of contact tracing, Brown approved Marion, Polk, and Hood River counties to implement phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan and Multnomah County begin phase 1 Friday.
“While Multnomah County has seen an increase in new cases recently, the county has not experienced an uptrend in new hospital admissions, and overall hospitalizations remain well within capacity,” Brown said about the county, which was the only Oregon county that had not yet reached phase one.
However, residents in all four counties approved to move into the next phase, in addition to Clakamas, Lincoln and Hood River counties, will be required to wear face covering while in public indoor spaces beginning June 24.
Up until now, the governor had determined what counties could enter a new phase on a county by county basis. However, that is changing.
Some counties will now be grouped together as regional units for reopening decisions.
The tri-county area–– Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas counties— will be treated as a single unit Marion and Polk Counties, which each include parts of Salem, will also be treated as a unit going forward.
“Both of these regions include a highly-connected urban area, making it difficult to monitor the disease based solely on the contours of county jurisdictional lines,” Brown said.
As a result of these decisions, the entire tri-county region will remain in phase 1 for at least 21 days, beginning June 19. After that, the regional unit will become eligible for phase 2 if they meet requirements.
“I know this impacts communities and businesses in Clackamas and Washington counties,” Brown said. “But, as we reopen our state, we must recognize how interconnected the metro area is.”
Commissioners in Union County, which is dealing with the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, took their own additional precautions against the deadly disease Wednesday by voting to recommend rolling back a loosening on restrictions, The Observer newspaper reported.
The move by Union County comes as the county of roughly 27,000 people nestled amid national forestland struggles with 242 confirmed cases of COVID-19. County health authorities said Wednesday at least 236 of those are related to the Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City. The county previously had just a handful of cases and had moved to the second phase of reopening under Gov. Kate Brown’s plan.
The votes are recommendations and the county is looking into what enforcement power it has. Union County is about 240 miles (386 kilometers) east of Portland.
Statewide, Oregon has seen a rise in confirmed COVID-19 cases in recent days following the outbreak in Union County and an outbreak at a seafood processing plant in Newport, a city in Lincoln County.
Brown said that over the next week the Oregon Health Authority will closely be monitoring case data across the state.
“If hospitalizations spike too rapidly, if the capacity of our health care system is threatened, we will be forced to revert to stricter rules,” Brown said.
Associated Press writer Gillian Flaccus contributed from Portland, Oregon.