As Lincoln County gears up for required face covering use in several businesses, the county leaders met today to discuss a few other COVID-19 items.
At the joint meeting between the Board of Commissioners and the City Councils, Lincoln County Health Department Director Rebecca Austen gave an update on the current COVID-19 cases in the county.
Austen said confidently that the virus has reduced in severity throughout the county and they are holding steady on hospitalizations, with two currently in Newport and one in Lincoln City. Austen said the fact that many people are asymptomatic, makes it challenging.
However, they have conducted contact tracing on all of the Pacific Seafood workers who tested positive and are currently gearing up for round two after mass testing took place this Tuesday and more testing will be done by Oregon State University this weekend.
“We’re really anxious for this weekend to see how many positive cases we will get out of that,” Austen said.
Prior to the joint Lincoln County meeting between the Board of Commissioners and the City Councils, the Lincoln City City Council met for a special meeting this afternoon to discuss how they’d be voting. At both meetings, the topic of face coverings was addressed at the start, as the county originally made a motion to pass a Public Health directive on June 15, which promoted face covering use in public spaces.
Commission Chair Kaety Jacobson said she spoke with Gov. Kate Brown and other Oregon county leaders last week about a potential face covering mandate. Jacobson said no decision was initially made and additionally, Lincoln County was told this past Tuesday they would not likely be included in such an order. However, Gov. Brown surprised the Commissioners with her announcement Wednesday that Lincoln County was included in the mandate that goes into effect June 24.
Lincoln City City Manager Ron Chandler gave some clarification for the upcoming order at the special meeting, stating that businesses will now be required to post signs about the mandate and will be required to proved a face cover to those who do not have them. However, Chandler noted that there is still not a lot of information on enforcing this new requirement. Lincoln City Police Department Chief Jerry Palmer has been working with the Oregon State Police to come up with guidance for enforcement.
“This will have a ripple affect statewide if it is not handled appropriately,” Palmer said at the meeting. “If we start issuing citations… it’ll be interesting to see what the reaction is. It’s a tough thing to decide, I’m glad I’m not making the decisions. I can tell you this will be a very distinct challenge to enforce.”
Palmer noted that the LCPD and many police departments simply do not have the resources to chase after people not wearing masks and stated that he was hoping the county would be able to stick with its Public Health directive, which was more about self regulation and education, rather than enforcement.
“I don’t know that the intention is for officers to issue misdemeanor citations,” Lincoln City Attorney Richard Appicello said. “I don’t see it as something to be enforced criminally.”
Appicello said this new order will likely be more on the businesses to enforce and regulate these requirements, or else they will face fines from the state health department.
Reducing Social Gatherings
The county leaders voted on a proposal today that would limit the social gathering size from 25 people, as it currently sits via the governor’s Reopening Oregon Plan, to 10 people. This proposal includes just private social gatherings and not businesses or churches.
During the Lincoln City meeting, Counselor Mitch Parsons started by stating that they should not reduce gathering size as it would ‘muddy the waters’ of the governor’s Reopening Plan. He argued that since the state has not changed their Phase 1 status, there was no need to change it.
“Why change course in the middle of the stream?” Councilor Judy Casper said in agreement.
Chief Palmer noted that businesses and citizens, for the most part, have been following the recommendations and requirements up to this point.
“By and large I think it has gone well,” Palmer said. “I think the approach we’ve taken to this point has been successful. If we start confronting people…. that might escalate things.”
After discussion, the council voted 5-2 in favor of maintaining the 25 person social gather size.
The county meeting held a different tone, as the majority of the county leaders were in favor of reducing gathering sizes. Commissioner Claire Hall cited a child’s birthday party which proved to be Lincoln County’s first official COVID-19 outbreak just a few weeks ago.
“I support this, I think it is a reasonable approach,” Hall said of reducing the gathering size to 10. “This is the time of year that people get together for picnics and BBQ’s.”
Commissioner Doug Hunt said he feels limiting social gatherings, like wearing face coverings, will play a factor in helping slow the spread of the virus. Jacobson agreed and noted the need to address an upcoming holiday weekend.
“My biggest concern is fourth of July,” Jacobson said. “I might suggest that we look at something specifically around that time period… We’re seeing transmission in those types of family gatherings.”
The Commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of the reduced gathering size. Yachats voted unanimously in favor, while Newport and Depoe Bay voted in favor with just one ‘nay’ vote each.
Waldport did not have a quorum for the meeting, Siletz already voted in favor at previous meeting, Toledo plans to vote on the matter this coming Wednesday and Lincoln City held true to its 5-2 vote that would oppose the rest of the county.
Lincoln City Mayor Dick Anderson provided an explanation to the rest of the county stating that eliminating one element in a Reopening Phase creates confusion. Anderson also addressed concerns with creating inconsistencies by allowing certain businesses or groups, like churches, who do not have to adhere to these rules.
“I find it interesting that we would do that and limit it to just social,” Anderson said about the church exception, citing that a church experienced a large outbreak last week in Umatilla County. “I also wonder how in the world we would regulate Fourth of July gatherings. We also have seen protests statewide with no enforcement, so how and why would we chose to enforce that here.”
24-Hour Rule for Lodging
Among lodging facilities in Lincoln County, several complaints have been issued regarding the 24-hour mandatory wait period for staff to clean a room after it has been occupied by a visitor. Owners have criticized the county for coming up with a 24-hour period that has not been justified by any health organization.
County Counsel Wayne Belmont clarified that the 24-hour period was not something that was made up and that it came from the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Organization. However, other organizations such as the American Lodging Industry state that a 15-minute period is all that is needed.
“I continue to be very concerned with the health of our employees and citizens,” Commissioner Hunt said. “Clearly keeping the 24 hour rule in place can only be beneficial to the health of our county.”
Commissioner Hall said she’s been listening to both sides and has been leaning toward keeping the rule in place.
“The fact that it limits the number of visitors, does protect the employees and the public at large,” Hall said. “One hotel cleaner that talked to me pointed to the Pacific Seafood outbreak and that 95 percent of those people are asymptomatic. I am going to come down in favor of keeping the hold.”
Jacobson also expressed concern for hotel staff, but acknowledged that this rule has caused some inconveniences for everyone involved.
“It’s mostly the workers that I am worried about,” Jacobson said. “I also would say that enforcement on this is very challenging. I struggle with this one, I feel at this point I’m okay with extending this for a period of time.”
The Commissioners voted 2-1 in favor of keeping it, as Hunt voted against because he’d like to see the hold stay in effect until Phase 2.
Depoe Bay chose not to uphold the original ruling, so they did not vote. Siletz, Toledo and Waldport all abstained from a vote due to lack of lodging properties. And Newport and Yachats both had motions to rescind the rule, but each did not receive a second, leaving the original ruling in place.
Once again, Lincoln City was against the tide, as they voted 5-2 to strike the rule.
Councilor Rick Mark said he was on the fence with this rule, stating that he though it was only supposed to apply to guest who were known COVID-19 positive or showing symptoms.
“It’s difficult because how many guests are going to come to front desks and announce they are COVID positive,” Mark said. “I think it’s a fair assumption to say that we have people coming to our hotels who are asymptomatic and spreading the virus.”
Councilor Parson voted in favor of rescinding the rule, stating that no other businesses has the assumption that their customers are COVID positive. Councilor Casper and Mayor Anderson were both in agreement saying that Lincoln County has not had any outbreak that was traced back to the lodging industry.
“Asymptomatic people are going to exist no matter where you go,” Casper said. “I think we are penalizing these businesses… I’m inclined to remove the 24 hour rule.”
Councilor Diane Hinton was in favor of the rule to support housekeepers and other employees.
“My main concern is health,” Hinton said. “Like everyone knows I live in the middle of VRD land and I can watch the behavior. I can tell when someone checks in and it hasn’t been 24 hours.”
After the County meeting, Lincoln City again stuck to its 5-2 vote.