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Jackson County won't defy state COVID-19 emergency declaration

Jackson County commissioners have decided not to issue a proclamation that the county is no longer covered by Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide declaration of a COVID-19 emergency and the state’s restrictions on businesses.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts put forward the idea of arguing Jackson County has effectively responded to the pandemic. She said the law about the governor’s emergency declaration powers says the area covered shall not be any larger than is necessary to respond to the emergency.

Roberts said more Jackson County residents are getting COVID-19 vaccines and death rates are down, so the governor’s emergency declaration no longer needs to apply to the county. She said business restrictions, school closures, rising mental health problems and poverty are heartbreaking.

“The outcomes have been so devastating to so many,” Roberts said.

However, the county has no legal authority to pull out of the statewide emergency declaration. County commissioners have no veto power over the governor, said Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton.

Some counties have issued proclamations in an effort to evade state COVID-19 restrictions, but such efforts haven’t succeeded in court.

Jackson County commissioners Rick Dyer and Dave Dotterrer declined to go along with Roberts’ proposal.

Dyer said businesses could get the false impression that a county proclamation freed them from having to follow state-imposed COVID-19 restrictions. Businesses could get hit with state fines or other costly consequences, like losing their state liquor licenses.

“There’s nothing that changes as far as the restrictions that are placed on businesses and the consequences that they face if they choose not to follow them,” he said.

Dyer said he’s asked some business owners if they would want such a proclamation, but they’ve said no because it wouldn’t offer them any protection from state regulatory agencies.

Dyer said issuing a proclamation could bring unwanted attention to Jackson County and subject businesses to even more scrutiny by regulators.

Roberts said it would have been up to business owners to decide how to respond to a proclamation, and whether to continue following state regulations. She said many are failing anyway because of the pandemic.

“Maybe it would give businesses cover. Maybe it wouldn’t give businesses cover. I’m not doing it for that,” she said.

Roberts said there is no end in sight for Oregon’s COVID-19 state of emergency. She said the emergency declaration could go on for another year, especially if state officials are alarmed by new COVID-19 variants.

“A level of personal responsibility and freedom has to return back,” she said.

Even if Jackson County could get out of the statewide emergency declaration, doing so could have serious negative impacts, said Jackson County Administrator Danny Jordan.

The state sends shipments of COVID-19 vaccine to Jackson County, provides financial help for case investigation and contact tracing, and offers free supplies such as masks and sanitizer that the county has been distributing to businesses, Jordan said.

He said Jackson County can’t handle the pandemic on its own.

“If the governor says, ‘You’re right. We’re not including you anymore. You’re on your own’ — is that what we’re trying to get to? Because I’m telling you, if we get there, we’re going to have some problems responding to issues we have to respond to,” Jordan said.

Jordan said a better argument to the governor could be that the state’s current risk categories that put restrictions on businesses are eroding public trust and causing resentment and resistance. He said the risk criteria were developed before vaccines became available.

The categories are based on the number of people per capita who test positive for the virus.

As of Monday, 39,915 people in Jackson County had received at least one COVID-19 shot, according to Jackson County Public Health.

That represents 18% of the population.

Jackson County was previously in the extreme risk category — the most restrictive level — then improved to the high risk category. It’s only been able to remain under the more loose high risk category regulations because the governor recently granted a two-week grace period for counties that see their cases rise again into the extreme range.

Before the governor announced the grace period, Jackson County commissioners had lobbied for a change to the risk categories. They argued hospitalizations and death rates — not positive cases — would be better measurements of risk, especially as the vaccine rollout continues.

Dyer said he wants to keep lobbying for changes that lead to tangible results.

The commissioners agreed this week to send a letter to the governor asking her to provide evidence and explain the logic of the state’s current methods of measuring risk.

They’re also sending a letter asking for more easing of regulations that limit in-person school. School boards and superintendents around the state are making similar requests on issues such as the number of square feet required for each person in a classroom.

On Monday, the state removed a 100-person per week cap on the number of individual contacts a student could have during in-person school. The rule had been especially hard on middle and high schools, where students rotate to different classrooms rather than staying in a home room.

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

Jamie Lusch / Mail TribuneBricktownE Brewing Company has outside seating available in downtown Medford. Jackson County commissioners have decided not to issue a proclamation that the county is no longer covered by Gov. Kate Brown’s statewide declaration of a COVID-19 emergency and the state’s restrictions on businesses, which includes limiting the number of people who can be served at restaurants.