Stay Home, Save Lives

Did the Governor's Order for Oregonians to Stay Home Come Soon Enough?

Health officials say the order's business regulations need to be even stricter.

By Julia Silverman March 23, 2020

“As I have said every single day, we’re making the best decisions we can at the time," said Gov. Kate Brown in a Friday morning press call. This weekend saw an influx of visitors to coastal Oregon towns, with many people not adhering to Brown's extreme social distancing measures. On Monday, the governor issued an executive order issuing all Oregonians to stay home unless they absolutely needed to go outside. Some people say it should have come sooner. 

The decree from Gov. Kate Brown’s office came down Monday morning like a door swinging shut: Stay home or else. 

Violate that ban and you're facing a class C misdemeanor charge, punishable by up to 30 days in jail or a $1,250 fine.  

The order comes after a furious onslaught from around the state, particularly from alarmed officials and health care providers in the Willamette Valley and on the Oregon Coast, who had been pushing for quicker and more decisive action from the governor’s office.  

Mayor Ted Wheeler, in particular, appeared ready to put teeth behind the order on Friday night, at a somewhat muddled press conference with the governor and Multnomah County Commissioner Deborah Kafoury that was clearly intended to be a show of unity, but didn't quite turn out that way. 

At the same press conference, while scrupulously maintaining the recommended six-foot buffer, Brown pleaded with Oregonians to stay home over the weekend, but stopped short of an executive order, backed up by enforcement. Her cries apparently fell on deaf ears, as residents flocked to the Columbia Gorge and the Oregon Coast on a gloriously sunny spring weekend, perhaps aware that both the rain and a more definitive order were on the horizon. 

The governor was under enormous and contradictory pressures, particularly from rural stretches of the state worried about a complete economic shutdown. And as her office took pains to point out in her executive order on Monday, she's been responding to coronavirus since late February. Key milestones include a declaration of a state of emergency on March 8, closure of public schools on March 12 and bans on gatherings of more than 25 people on March 17. 

But by Monday, the public health outcry from doctors, nurses and hospital systems was too loud to ignore. Worried over the predicted surge in cases and a corresponding lack of hospital infrastructure, from beds to personal protective gear, the clinical outcry to enforce physical distancing to slow the spread of the disease reached a fever pitch. 

Brown told reporters Monday that she'd spent the weekend hammering out the state's policy, conferring with health experts and elected officials from around the state.

"I was working on a statewide policy that would protect all of Oregon, and I wanted to do it collaboratively, methodically, thoughtfully," says Brown. "In other states, the orders that were crafted caused great confusion. We wanted to avoid that here as much as possible."

But confusion and disagreement remained, with some saying that Brown's policy should have been more restrictive on businesses, similar to the ban enforced by her fellow Democrat, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California. In that state, only a small handful of "essential" businesses have been allowed to stay open; all others are telework only. In Oregon, by contrast, Brown's office issued a laundry list of those that were required to close (aquariums and tattoo parlors, among them). But businesses not on that list and that cannot telework may remain open, she says, so long as someone on staff is enforcing social distancing policies and the six-foot buffer rule.

"It was hard to see the hospitals saying, 'Please stay in place,' last week, but not to be getting that same messaging from the state," says Dr. Ximena Levander, an addiction medicine fellow at Oregon Health and Sciences University. "And it is important to be really clear about what [businesses are] essential and what is not. It would help too if people who owned small businesses felt there would be government support to help them financially after this is over."

The governor says she needs to balance both a public health emergency and economic livelihoods, particularly for those who are already living on the margins. "From a business owners' perspective," Brown says, "Everyone thinks that their business is essential. What is so important that we focus on, if you cannot telecommute or socially distance safely, then you need to close down."

Now that the order has finally come, the question is: Did Oregon act soon enough, and is the order strict enough? A new website,, created by a team of data scientists and medical policy experts from the Bay Area suggests that—assuming that the stay at home edict is rigorously practiced by everyone in the state for the next three months—we may have sneaked in at the very last moment. 

According to the model, without such aggressive measures in place by as soon as March 24, Oregon’s hospital system would overload—and deaths could reach 64,000. With stay-at-home policies and much more widespread business closures in place, the estimate goes down to 2,000 deaths—but those are only estimates, and plenty is still unknown.

"I truly hope that people will get the message and will do the right thing in terms of aggressive social distancing," says Multnomah County Commissioner Sharon Meieran, a doctor who was among the earliest voices calling for stricter policies. "Right now, I can't focus on could haves and should haves. What we need to do is focus on what we can do every moment moving forward to bend the curve and try to change the trajectory of this virus."

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