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Governor announces reprieve for counties facing move back to extreme risk

Gov. Kate Brown announced a reprieve Thursday for Jackson County and other counties that are at risk of backsliding into the COVID-19 extreme risk category and its accompanying restrictions.

Counties that see their COVID-19 cases climb back up into the extreme risk category will be given a two-week extension to try and bring the cases back down.

That means restaurants can keep offering indoor dining and movie theaters can stay open, at least during the grace period.

“Recognizing the challenges businesses encounter when facing a switch back and forth between Extreme Risk and other risk levels, this two-week extension will alleviate some of these challenges and give counties a bit more time to bring case rates down,” Brown said Thursday. “As always, businesses and community members should continue to make smart choices and follow statewide and county-specific health and safety guidance. We all have a part to play in stopping the spread of COVID-19.”

Jackson County got to move from the extreme risk category to the high risk category Feb. 26 after it saw a drop-off in COVID-19 cases.

But it’s in danger of landing in the extreme risk category again because of rising numbers in the current two-week measuring period that ends Saturday.

Jackson County recorded 434 cases through Thursday and has to see less than 10 cases total on Friday and Saturday to stay in the high category.

The county has been averaging 36 new daily cases in the current reporting period.

The governor’s change means businesses can keep operating under high risk restrictions for another two weeks, even if the county overshoots the case target.

The state will announce where counties fall in the risk categories Tuesday, with any changes taking effect Friday, March 12.

Counties that are given a two-week extension will be listed on Tuesday, the governor’s office said.

The governor’s office said the two-week extension will allow counties to refocus their efforts on driving down case numbers that are creeping up. The extension will give local businesses more certainty about their plans for operating. If county case numbers are still in the extreme risk range at the end of the two-week extension, the county will have to move to the extreme category restrictions.

Jackson County Commissioner Rick Dyer said some local restaurants invested tens of thousands of dollars to buy perishable food and bring back employees when the state allowed them to resume indoor dining.

“Restaurants will not have to close down — at least for that two-week buffer,” he said.

Under the high risk category, movies theaters were allowed to reopen, and gyms, malls and churches were allowed to have more people inside.

Dyer said the two-week buffer will help businesses.

“It’s good news for businesses that thought they were going to close,” he said.

However, Dyer said the state should do away with the extreme risk restrictions altogether.

With more and more people getting vaccinated against COVID-19, he said the risk of hospitalization and death is down.

The number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Jackson and Josephine counties peaked at 85 patients Dec. 19, 2020. The number of hospitalized patients stood at 26 on Thursday, according to Oregon Health Authority and Jackson County Public Health data.

The number of COVID-19 patients in intensive care unit beds in the two counties peaked at 22 on Dec. 31, 2020. That number was down to three on Thursday, data shows.

During the pandemic, Jackson County had recorded 116 COVID-19-related deaths as of Thursday, according to Jackson County Public Health.

Dyer said the state’s extreme risk restrictions have been driving a stake through the heart of local businesses and the economy.

“It’s devastating — especially since they’re already on the ropes,” he said.

In February, Jackson County Commissioners sent a letter to the state asking for an immediate reevaluation of the risk levels and restrictions. They’ve continued their lobbying efforts since then.

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

Andy Atkinson / Mail TribuneChristian Hamilton, proprietor of the Bella Union Restaurant and Saloon, talks with customers about COVID restrictions Thursday evening.