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Views in Jackson County mixed on state COVID-19 rules

Some local residents told Jackson County commissioners Thursday the state’s COVID-19 restrictions are strangling local businesses and hurting people, while others said they back Gov. Kate Brown’s rules that are meant to slow the spread of the virus and save lives.

Commissioners held a virtual public hearing via videoconference and phone to hear people’s views on state regulations that place counties in low, moderate, high or extreme risk categories. Those categories are based on COVID-19 case counts and determine what activities are allowed in each county.

Jackson County is advancing from the extreme risk category to the high risk category Friday after it saw a drop-off in cases during a previous two-week reporting period. Restaurants will be able to resume indoor dining. Restaurants and gyms can operate at 25% capacity or 50 people or fewer, whichever is less. Nursing homes can allow visitors inside.

Bob Robertson spoke about the ordeal of local restaurants and hotels during the pandemic. He said the owner of several restaurants that had been successful before the pandemic wanted him to pass on a message.

“He wants me to express to you that the 25% allowance that the state has now come up with is a slap in the face to all of the restaurant owners and all of the businesses because it just allows them to continue to lose money,” Robertson said of the state’s capacity rules.

He said most businesses can’t operate profitably with those limits.

“The state is just guaranteeing total bankruptcy for all the restaurants and businesses that try to operate under those ridiculous rules,” Robertson said.

Robertson said half of the area’s restaurant workers are unemployed.

As many other local residents have done, he urged Jackson County commissioners to use their authority under the county’s home rule charter to override the state restrictions.

Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton said he researched the issue and doesn’t believe the charter gives commissioners or the county the authority to loosen or eliminate the restrictions or to bar their enforcement.

Oregon courts have consistently found that state or federal laws override local government charters and laws, according to a memo Benton wrote after researching the issue for the commissioners.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer noted the state is the governing body that has imposed the restrictions, not the county. He said he understands why county residents feel abandoned and unrepresented.

Throughout the pandemic, Dyer said he and fellow commissioners have been sending letters to the state and engaging in other efforts to advocate for an approach that balances public health, the economy, mental health, education and other needs.

Commissioners recently sent a letter to the governor asking for an immediate and thorough review of the criteria for the state’s risk categories for counties.

Amy of Eagle Point spoke during the hearing and said she represented more than 200 businesses. The Mail Tribune was not able to verify the spelling and last names of some speakers because of the videoconference and phone format of the hearing.

Amy said it doesn’t make sense that people can go into large stores like Costco by the hundreds, while smaller businesses that want to stay afloat and serve the community are suffering.

Jim Ronda, owner of Punky’s Diner & Pies in Medford, said after eight successful years, he’s suffered one of the most devastating periods of time in his 75 years of life due to government regulations and overreach.

Ronda said the 25% capacity indoor dining rule isn’t practical for his restaurant, although he’ll try to offer indoor dining for his eager customers.

He said 220,000 Jackson County residents don’t have COVID-19.

“So where’s the justification for being in this kind of lockdown? It doesn’t make any sense to us,” Ronda said.

Peter Sage, a Medford senior citizen who was a county commissioner decades ago, said thousands of Jackson County residents are 70 or older. He said hundreds could die if the virus gets out of control.

Sage said he tries to avoid high-risk places but can’t avoid going out in public altogether. As COVID-19 vaccines roll out, he said, the community will become more safe and regulations will ease.

“If we can gut it out for another 60 days, most of us will have been vaccinated who want to be vaccinated,” Sage said.

Katherine Shields, another senior citizen who lives in Ashland, said she’s received her first of two COVID-19 vaccine doses and feels things are headed in a positive direction. But like many seniors, she said she faces health concerns that put her at heightened risk if she does get the virus.

“We need to stay the course,” Shields said.

Jeanne Chouard, an Ashland resident who works with preschoolers with disabilities, said she’s excited to go back to in-person school. She said the state has made progress against the virus because of the governor’s COVID-19 regulations.

“Although we’ve made progress, there is still the risk of community spread,” she said.

Chouard said kids can stay in school only if people work to control the spread of virus. She urged commissioners to back the governor’s regulations.

Business owner Daryl Griggs said he is concerned about the impact of COVID-19 restrictions on kids and young people. He said he has lost a few friends due to depression during the pandemic.

Griggs said although many schools have returned to part-time in-person school, kids and parents are still struggling at home.

David Reece, a Medford parent, said the state restrictions don’t take into account the mental health toll on kids and adults. He said he’s been scared to hear his 2-year-old daughter express suicidal thoughts because of all the things she hasn’t been able to do during the pandemic.

Reece said the lockdown isn’t warranted because only a tiny minority of people are at risk.

Representing the Southern Oregon Spartans junior hockey team, Sam Rosenbaum said some families have left the state and others are traveling out of state to let young people play. Some players’ dreams of getting scholarships or going pro have been interrupted.

Rosenbaum said it’s frustrating to be told the state has no plans to modify restrictions on contact sports.

Under current state regulations, indoor full-contact sports are banned at all county risk levels in indoor recreation and fitness establishments.

Shantel Dayton, the owner of a gym in Medford, said her business improves people’s physical and mental health.

She said businesses are dropping like flies and accumulating debt while waiting for changes that would bring life back to the small-business community. She said mandatory closures, mask mandates and capacity limits have left some small business owners feeling they have no choice but to defy the state regulations.

Erin, a Medford resident and physician, said she hasn’t had a day off since March 8, 2020. On days when she isn’t officially at work, she mixes vaccines to help with the vaccination rollout.

Rather than throw out the state rules, Erin urged people to stay the course.

“We’re so close to being there,” she said.

Erin said the local community needs to fight for what it needs, including adequate supplies of vaccine.

Dr. Dave Gilmour, a retired physician living in Central Point and a former Jackson County commissioner and Jackson County Public Health official, said pandemic restrictions are having a terrible economic impact.

However, Gilmour said the county would likely have experienced 500 to 600 deaths without safeguards in place.

The county’s COVID-19-related death toll stood at 111 as of Thursday.

Gilmour said the virus could rebound if restrictions are lifted too early.

Lauri Hoagland, a family nurse practitioner for La Clinica, said the network of medical clinics supports the governor’s regulations, although they have been hard on people. She said La Clinica workers see how the restrictions have dramatically impacted business, education and other sectors.

“As frontline health care workers, we also experience daily the dramatic health impacts of the pandemic as we care for COVID patients and attempt to keep others safe from getting the virus,” Hoagland said.

She said the virus leaves some survivors with lingering health concerns that last for many months, and more than 100 have died in the county.

Hoagland said policy makers need to allow time for COVID-19 vaccinations to take effect and save lives. She encouraged continued emphasis on mask-wearing, social distancing, hand-washing and vaccination. She said those actions helped Jackson County improve into the high risk category.

Whether Jackson County can remain in the high risk category remains uncertain. The county reported 75 new COVID-19 cases Thursday — the most of any county in the state.

Jackson County needs to stay below roughly 440 cases over two weeks to avoid being pushed back into the extreme risk category.

On Thursday, the governor extended Oregon’s COVID-19 state of emergency through May 2. The declaration is the legal underpinning for her executive orders and the Oregon Health Authority’s health and safety rules. The state of emergency has been in place since March 2020.

Brown said Oregon has had some of the lowest infection and mortality rates in the country, and Oregonians have helped save thousands of lives by making smart choices that protect others.

She said fewer COVID-19 patients are in critical care units.

“As we vaccinate thousands of Oregonians each day and reopen more school buildings and businesses as safely as possible, now is not the time to let up our guard,” Brown said.

The governor reviews and reevaluates each of her emergency orders every 60 days, to determine whether those orders should be continued, modified or rescinded.

Jackson County commissioners are continuing to accept written public comments on the state’s risk categories and regulations for counties until 5 p.m. Monday.

Comments can be mailed to Jackson County Commissioners, 10 S. Oakdale Ave., Room 214, Medford, OR 97501.

Emails can be sent to boc-cao_admin@jacksoncounty.org. All written correspondence must include the author’s name and address to be accepted into the public hearing record.

Information about the commissioners’ past efforts to influence state COVID-19 policy, plus the memo on Jackson County’s home rule charter, can be found at jacksoncountyor.org/Board-of-Commissioners/COVID-19-Response.

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