Marion and Polk County have been denied approval to enter Phase 1 of the state's reopening plan.

Today Governor Brown announced the approval for 31 of Oregon’s 36 counties to enter into Phase 1 of her reopening plan. “This has been extraordinarily difficult for all of us, but is saving lives," she says. "Already, these sacrifices have prevented as many as 70,000 COVID-19 infections and 1,500 hospitalizations. Our success this far gives me confidence as we take the next steps towards our reopening process."

Conspicuously absent from the list of counties granted permission to begin the phased reopening process: Multnomah, Clackamas, and Washington Counties, where the bulk of Oregon’s population is concentrated. In fact, the three counties have not yet submitted the applications required to be considered for reopening. 

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury told reporters on Thursday that the county has yet to meet state thresholds in particular areas, including hiring and training enough contact tracers to track the spread of the disease. Currently, Multnomah County has 34 investigators, but would need 122 to meet state standards of 15 per every 100,000 residents. 

Multnomah County also needs to beef up the number of testing sites available to historically underserved communities and to increase its stock of personal protective equipment for first responders.  

“$1.7 billion has been allocated to regional governments through the federal CARES act package. Multnomah County is home to about 20 percent of all Oregonians, but we have 27 percent of Oregon’s cases and 40 percent of all the deaths,” Kafoury says. “Yet we have received just $28 million. That is less than 2 percent of the total. That is nowhere near enough. The blunt calculations used to allocate this disproportionately small amount hurts the people of Multnomah County and risks undercutting our ability to reopen and recover safely.” 

Marion and Polk Counties were not able to adhere to the state's seven criteria for approval, and their applications to move to Phase 1 were denied. Both counties have seen a spike in infections with the Oregon Health Authority's weekly data showing last week that Marion County (pop. 350,000) has the highest infection rate of any county in the state and the second-highest number of cases, under Multnomah (pop. 812,000), despite being less than half the size. Governor Brown said counties would be reevaluated weekly to determine their eligibility.

“The shared goals of good public health and a strong economy are intimately connected. And it's not an either-or scenario,” says Governor Brown on loosening public restrictions while COVID-19 still lingers. “We know, and expect, that there may be an uptick in new coronavirus cases. Reopening any part of our state comes with risk. The virus is still very dangerous. And until there is a reliable treatment or a vaccine, unfortunately, we will not be able to go back to life as we knew it.”

Each county will need to be in its phase for a minimum of three weeks before it can apply to move to the next phase of reopening. And she noted that if Oregonians do not continue to follow CDC guidelines, counties could move backwards instead of forwards.

“People need to know that if there is a significant spike of cases in a community that cannot be addressed and contained via contact tracing and quarantine, we may need to put the stay-at-home rules back in place in order to contain the virus. I know this is a tough reality to face,” she says. “We are venturing out on thin ice, and need to step carefully and cautiously. This is another reason why everyone across the state should continue to practice physical distancing and wear face coverings.”

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