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Commissioners ask for no more COVID-19 restrictions

Jackson County commissioners are joining other commissioners from southwest Oregon counties in asking Gov. Kate Brown not to impose any more COVID-19 restrictions on the area.

Jackson County commissioners agreed Tuesday to sign onto the letter with Josephine, Douglas, Coos and Curry counties.

“This is truly a situation where one size does not fit all, and our citizens and businesses should not be further restricted when they are doing everything that they have been asked to do to slow the spread,” the letter said.

COVID-19 restrictions that have applied to the whole state include school closures, and more recently, requirements to wear masks in indoor public spaces as well as outdoors when people can’t stay at least six feet apart.

Business restrictions initially went into effect statewide, but have eased in most counties as they met state benchmarks and adopted widespread health and safety requirements.

Jackson County Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she doesn’t think the governor is done issuing statewide mandates.

“There’s more coming,” Roberts predicted.

Although they agreed to sign the joint letter, Jackson County commissioners said they don’t think it will have much impact on future decisions by the governor. The letter was penned in Coos County, with room for the signatures of commissioners in five counties.

“I don’t know that it’s going to accomplish much,” said Jackson County Commissioner Bob Strosser.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said he would sign onto the letter in a spirit of collaboration with surrounding counties.

“It does at least have a message that comes from a united front down here,” he said.

Roberts wanted to send another, separate letter just from Jackson County but couldn’t get Dyer and Strosser to go along with that move.

Roberts drafted a letter arguing state law restricts the governor’s declaration of a state of emergency to a geographic area that is no larger than necessary to effectively respond to the emergency.

Brown declared a state of emergency March 8 covering all of Oregon that remains in effect, providing a legal underpinning for many of the state COVID-19 safety regulations.

Roberts argued in her draft letter that Jackson County cannot be held subject to the emergency regulations because it has responded effectively to COVID-19.

She thinks Jackson County needs to fight the governor’s COVID-19 regulations by arguing they apply to too broad of a geographic area. Otherwise, she said, “we’ll just continue on in this state of emergency forever.”

But Dyer said he didn’t think Roberts’ legal strategy would work, noting the Oregon Supreme Court already ruled the governor has broad powers during the pandemic.

“Legally, there’s going to be no effect, and unfortunately, that’s the situation we’re in,” he said.

In June, the Oregon Supreme Court ruled against a group of churches and other organizations that sued to try and block the governor’s COVID-19 regulations. Those groups argued unsuccessfully that a time limit for the governor’s state of emergency had expired.

Strosser said Jackson County can’t demand to be removed from the geographic area covered by the emergency declaration.

Although county employees are working very hard on the COVID-19 response, he said, the number of cases is rising and contact tracers are falling behind on being able to trace everyone who comes into contact with infected individuals within 24 hours.

The state has set a standard of contact tracing 95% of potentially exposed people within 24 hours. Jackson County previously was contact tracing 100% of people, but that percentage has fallen to 76% recently, said John Vial, the head of the county’s Emergency Operations Center.

Some people have attended parties without knowing everyone there, or picked up the virus at some unknown place in the community — adding to the difficulty for contact tracers, according to Jackson County Public Health.

Jackson County entered phase two of the reopening of businesses and activities June 5.

During April, when COVID-19 restrictions were tightest, the county had zero to seven cases each week.

Weekly cases ranged from one to nine in May, then from three to 44 in June, according to county weekly data that is available through June.

Totals of daily counts so far in July show the county is experiencing weekly totals that range from approximately 34 to 48 cases.

“That’s a huge increase,” Strosser said.

Final counts sometimes fluctuate slightly based on different factors, such as when a case is assigned to a different county.

Strosser said members of the community have a variety of views on the pandemic and the governor’s regulations. He said not everyone wants a rollback on the measures meant to protect the public’s health.

“Many of them are just frightened to death,” Strosser said.

Jackson County Senior Deputy County Administrator Harvey Bragg said the state could decide not to share federal COVID-19 aid with the county if it asked to be excluded from the area covered by the emergency declaration. That aid includes money to reimburse the county for what is likely to be millions of dollars in COVID-19 response efforts.

Roberts said that would be a chance she is willing to take to set businesses and citizens free.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.