This week starts the first week of February, which means we are contractually obligated to make a Groundhog Day reference—except that given our constant stop-start churn of COVID cycles, those mentions suddenly do not seem in the least amusing. Still, this week everyone’s favorite groundhog will in fact haul himself out of his hole and try to glimpse his shadow. Let’s all hold out hopes for an early spring, and the brighter days ahead.
But First, More COVID
The omicron surge is supposed to peak in Oregon this week, per OHSU’s hospitalization forecasts, after a frankly brutal January. Numbers have been leveling off statewide, but this could be the week where we finally start to see the downward trend that’s been evident in major East Coast cities for the past two weeks. Oregon Health Authority officials said at a news conference on Friday that they were guardedly hopeful that a more normal spring is ahead for the state. COVID-related hospitalizations never approached the terrifying 3,000 number that was predicted back in mid-December, but have almost reached as high as the Delta surge of late summer, causing yet more strain on an already stretched-to-the-limit health care system.
And More on Masks
In one week’s time, on February 8, Oregon’s temporary indoor mask mandate rule is set to expire. But don’t throw away all those masks just yet. The state is considering making its current rules permanent—and in fact, did just that last week for schools and health care facilities. But that doesn’t mean that we’ll all be required to mask up in public spaces forever. Instead, making the rule permanent would give the Oregon Health Authority the ability to extend the mandate until metrics mean it is no longer needed, though exactly what targets we’re trying to hit have never been spelled out. The proposal has drawn an avalanche of pushback in the form of public feedback; soon, we could find out whether that’s prompted the agency to reconsider its plans.
Meanwhile, in Salem
The Oregon Legislature meets this week for a so-called short session, and right off the bat things will look different. Former House Speaker Tina Kotek has stepped down to concentrate on her run for governor, as has her Republican counterpart Christine Drazan. And for Senate President Peter Courtney, the longest-serving legislator in Oregon history, this will be a valedictory tour, as he is retiring. In general, the short session is intended as a change to make budget fixes that might have cropped up since last year, but inevitably, other priorities make their way onto the agenda. This year, legislative leaders say they want more spending on affordable housing, workforce development, and public safety. Additionally, Gov. Kate Brown is calling for $120 million for a new middle school to replace Harriet Tubman in Portland, which is being crowded out by proposed freeway development on Interstate 5.
Last week was supposed to bring some resolution to question of whether former New York Times columnist, now Yamhill County farmer Nick Kristof would be able to appear on the May ballot in the governor's race, given questions about his residency that have been raised by the Oregon Secretary of State. The Oregon Supreme Court extended the deadline for friend-of-the-court briefs to be filed on the question, to give more people time to weigh in. As Willamette Week has reported, both sides have their supporters; a group of BIPOC female legislators has argued that Kristof should not be allowed to run, while two former secretaries of state say that it is the voters, and not the Secretary of State's office, who should have the final say. A decision from the Oregon Supreme Court could come as early as Monday.
Let the Games Begin
Let’s end on a lighter note, shall we? The 2022 Winter Olympics have their opening ceremonies in Beijing this Friday night, and even with China’s strict crackdown on spectators due to COVID concerns, there’s still plenty to cheer for (fellow figure skating enthusiasts, this is our moment!). Keep an eye out for these four Oregonians who will be representing the state on the slopes.