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Jackson County commissioners cancel in-person public meetings

Jackson County commissioners will have online-only public meetings after a group of people opposed to COVID-19 restrictions repeatedly attended meetings without wearing masks.

One of the members of the anti-mask group is Michael Erickson, who calls himself Biome and has made unsuccessful runs to be mayor of Ashland.

On Twitter, Erickson describes himself as a “White (Aryan) male American National Socialist/Historical Revisionist.”

A fan of Adolf Hitler, Nazism, segregation and white supremacy, Erickson has tweeted that the Holocaust and the COVID-19 pandemic are hoaxes.

“It’s all a manufactured scam, hoax designed to bring on the global slave state. Lockdowns are for prisoners. Don’t be fooled!” he tweeted about the pandemic.

During a recent county commission meeting at which he didn’t wear a mask, Erickson said Oregon’s governor and state health officials are beholden to globalist corporate masters. He said communists are inciting racial division across America in hopes of taking over the country.

“The pandemic and the race war are both contrived,” Erickson said.

County commissioners agreed Thursday to stop holding their regular Wednesday meetings in-person at the Jackson County Courthouse auditorium. They had been offering the public the option of attending in person or via the videoconferencing service Zoom.

Earlier in the pandemic, the commissioners were meeting by Zoom only, but then began offering the in-person or videoconference option.

But for at least a month, several people have been attending the Wednesday public meetings to question whether the pandemic is real and to say Gov. Kate Brown’s regulations meant to stop the spread of the virus are unnecessary and authoritarian.

Jackson County could potentially be slapped with costly Oregon Occupational Safety and Health fines for allowing people inside a government building who aren’t wearing face coverings or practicing social distancing.

A Lakeview pharmacy that let customers inside without masks was fined $9,400 in August.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she would like to be able to offer residents both in-person and online opportunities to comment but doesn’t want to risk OSHA fines, which she called exorbitant.

“I don’t want any undue liability to the county, and hopefully this is all a short time frame,” she said of the move to online-only meetings.

Roberts said struggling businesses throughout Oregon are having to figure out how to stay afloat under pandemic restrictions imposed by the state. She said the mask mandate has divided people.

As the chair of the Board of Commissioners this year, Roberts is charged with running meetings and keeping order.

Asked why she didn’t ban people from coming into the meeting for not wearing masks, she said, “I don’t want to talk about people who don’t wear masks.”

Commissioner Rick Dyer said he didn’t think trying to force people to comply with mask requirements would be conducive to a well-run, smooth meeting. He said he wanted to be fiscally responsible and not put the county at risk, so moving to the online-only format was the best alternative.

A Jackson County Sheriff’s Office deputy attends the regular Wednesday county commission meetings. A sign outside tells people masks are required.

During a recent meeting when Jackson County employees were recognized for many years of service, they waited outside, then came inside wearing masks and in small groups. A masked county employee sprayed the podium with disinfectant after each person spoke.

The group of anti-mask residents then came in without masks, with some sitting close together.

Dr. Bruce Van Lee, a retired Medford physician who favors safety precautions such as face masks, attended an in-person meeting Aug. 5 and said he saw no effort being made to stop the anti-mask group from coming inside. He later attended a meeting via Zoom because he didn’t want to risk exposure from the anti-mask group that continued to attend in-person meetings.

Van Lee said commissioners should have told the anti-mask people they could no longer attend in-person, rather than canceling in-person meetings for everyone.

“I think it’s giving in to a group that is flaunting the governor’s orders. I would have preferred that the meetings remain public and people follow the rules,” he said.

Commissioner Bob Strosser said it was up to Roberts, as the chair of the board, to tell the anti-mask group they couldn’t come inside or direct the sheriff’s deputy to do so.

“I will leave it at that,” Strosser said.

Strosser said he favors following the governor’s requirements to wear face coverings indoors when social distancing cannot be maintained.

“This group can’t seem to find it in their abilities to do that,” he said of the anti-mask group.

Strosser said he walks into the public meetings wearing a mask, then takes it off when seated so he can speak clearly and be heard.

The county’s three commissioners are seated far apart at the front of the room.

Van Lee and other local doctors who have spoken to the commissioners said the anti-mask group is spreading dangerous misinformation.

Dr. Ruth Rabinovitch, who retired a few years ago from her job specializing in the detection and prevention of infectious diseases for Medford hospitals, said no one would choose to undergo surgery if the surgeons refused to wear masks or medical gowns. Those precautions help prevent life-threatening infections in open wounds.

Rabinovitch said she would never have allowed a surgeon or nurse involved in an operation to opt out of wearing a mask.

“For me, I wear seat belts. They’re a minor inconvenience, but they save lives,” she said to commissioners at a recent meeting she attended via Zoom.

Under Oregon’s COVID-19 regulations, people with a disability are not required to wear masks in businesses. However, that doesn’t mean the business has to allow the person to come inside a store without a mask. The store must offer reasonable accommodations, such as curbside pick-up, according to the Oregon Health Authority.

Businesses are not allowed to ask people what disabilities they have or ask for proof of a disability, OHA says.

Strosser said he hasn’t heard members of the anti-mask group claim they have disabilities and ask for an exemption to the mask rules.

Roberts said she would be violating medical privacy laws if she asked people about disabilities.

In 2018, Erickson was expelled from a Jewish service at the Havurah Shir Hadash synagogue in Ashland after participants became anxious about his presence.

Erickson responded with Facebook posts saying he was attending in a spirit of peace, reconciliation and openness to dialogue, but then he went on to declare an end to the “Jewish-Masonic reign of terror.” He also denied the Holocaust.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.

Colleen Roberts