SALEM, Ore. — A temporary return to near-lockdown status in Oregon to curb surging COVID-19 cases is popular with medical providers wary of being overwhelmed, but has drawn fire from small business organizations.
Governor Kate Brown announced the two-week "freeze" in a press conference on Friday, outlining a series of temporary business limitations or closures and prevailing upon Oregonians to substantially limit social gatherings that have helped to fuel the spread.
Brown, state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger, and several officials from local hospital adminstrations underlined that the primary reason for the freeze is to reduce the strain on medical providers and prevent further outbreaks at long-term care facilities.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems came out soon after the press conference with a statement in support of the two-week freeze.
“Community hospitals across Oregon have stepped up during the pandemic, and front-line health care workers have worked tirelessly to care for those who have fallen ill. With COVID-19 cases soaring across the state, it is imperative that we act now to preserve hospital capacity," said OAHHS president and CEO Becky Hultberg. "We support the Governor’s two-week freeze on social gatherings and the three-state travel advisory announced by Oregon, Washington, and California.
"If we are not able to slow the spread of COVID-19 now, hospital capacity for all Oregonians could be threatened as COVID-19 hospitalizations continue to grow, jeopardizing the availability of care for us all," Hultberg continued. "Cancer patients need treatments; those with injuries need physical rehabilitation; those in chronic pain need surgery.
"We urge the public to follow these new guidelines. We know it’s hard, eight months into the pandemic, to limit where we go and how we interact with friends and family. But these steps – combined with social distancing, hand washing, and face coverings when you must leave your home – are essential steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and bring it under control so we can bring normalcy back into our lives.”
Leaders of Oregon's small businesses, however, expressed their frustration with the forthcoming freeze — pointing to health officials' statements that private social gatherings have been the biggest culprit in spread of coronavirus.
“Since the beginning of the pandemic, the overwhelming majority of businesses have done everything asked of them in order to keep their employees and customers safe, which is why ‘workplace outbreaks’ at businesses that were previously required to shut down account for a very low number of the state’s total positive cases," said Anthony Smith, Oregon director for the National Federation of Independent Business.
“It simply doesn’t make any sense to impose further restrictions on businesses that provide safer, regulated spaces for Oregonians to engage in economic and social activities in masked and socially distanced atmospheres," Smith continued. “This approach will only prompt more Oregonians to seek out the same informal social gatherings that are driving the recent spread of the virus."
While health officials have indeed pointed to social gatherings as the primary source of COVID-19 spread in recent weeks, it's also a drum that they've been beating to no apparent effect. And though Governor Brown has previously issued limitations on the size of private gatherings — and did again as part of the two-week freeze — state and local authorities have no real means of enforcing them.
Nor have Oregon workplaces been without outbreaks in the past several months. The Oregon Health Authority's most recent weekly report continues to list dozens of workplace outbreaks with thousands of positive cases — although outbreaks at three of Oregon's state prisons account for more than 1,000 of those cases.
Regardless, the freeze will undoubtedly have an outsized impact on both small businesses and their employees. The Oregon Employment Department issued a statement on Friday signaling that it was preparing for a hike in unemployment claims during the freeze.
“While the Two-Week Freeze may not directly affect all businesses, we want Oregonians to know that we are in a much better place than we were at the start of the pandemic to respond to an uptick in unemployment claims. We are ready to take your claims and ensure you get your benefits as quickly as possible, whether through an existing benefit program or any new federal program that may get passed,” said acting director David Gerstenfeld.
Many businesses that haven't already closed report being on the verge of buckling. One in every five members of NFIB reported that they could only stay open for another six months, at most, under current economic conditions, Smith said. Another 19 percent said that could make it 12 months.
"In total, that’s nearly 40 percent of small businesses that are looking at a permanent closure within the year. If economic conditions worsen, the timeline will likely shorten,” Smith concluded.
The Chamber of Medford & Jackson County joined dozens of other business associations across the state in writing a letter to Governor Brown, urging her to consider alternatives to business closures. That letter may be downloaded here or read below.