Gov. Kate Brown is getting blowback from political opponents seeking to derail a new state policy requiring Oregon residents show proof of vaccination at places with more relaxed COVID-19 rules.
Brown had announced the new policy earlier this month as a new way to build confidence in when and where someone might be exposed to COVID-19, which has killed over 591,000 Americans since last year.
"This disease remains dangerous for those in communities with high rates of unvaccinated individuals," Brown said. "That's why I'm encouraging all Oregonians to roll up your sleeves, take your shot, and get a chance to change your life."
While Brown has framed the issue as one of public health, opponents say it's about privacy and personal choice.
The 23-member House Republican Caucus wrote Brown on Thursday calling on her to reverse plans for what they called a "vaccination passport." The term is popular among conservatives to describe the COVID-19 inoculation certificates approved by the Centers for Disease Control.
"We are reaching the end of the pandemic and should be lifting mandates, not adding new ones," the GOP letter said.
Led by House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, the Republicans pointed to recent decisions by two Brown allies: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, both Democrats.
Washington and California will not require residents of their states to show documentation of inoculation in order to gain entry to places reserved for those who are vaccinated.
The Oregon House Republican letter said Brown should keep in step with Newsom and Inslee, as she has on many - though not all - pandemic policies.
"Oregon's response to COVID-19 should not be an outlier on the West Coast," the Republicans wrote. "It is time to place our trust in Oregonians again. They have earned it."
Brown has said showing vaccination certification is a small inconvenience to ensure the containment of a virus that has killed over 591,000 Americans.
The salvo from the House Republicans was part of a barrage fired at Brown's plans over the past week.
A letter from the National Grocers Association and 10 other major retail groups has asked federal health and worker safety officials to stop Brown from requiring employees to ask for and verify vaccination cards. The letter was first reported by Willamette Week.
While enforcement of the mandate will officially fall to the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division, state officials have said they expect businesses and employees to check for vaccine documentation.
Making front line workers the gatekeepers and enforcers of state policy was inappropriate and potentially dangerous, the business groups said.
The criticisms came as what was supposed to be a showcase for the new policy has been scaled back and watered down by key participants.
The National Basketball Association and Brown simultaneously announced Monday that Thursday's NBA playoff game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets would be the first to offer "vaccinated sections.
The game plan was all possible because Multnomah County was one of six counties in the state to certify it had put at least one shot of vaccine into 65% of its residents.
Under the policy, Multnomah was placed under the least restrictive COVID-19 rules, despite having a COVID-19 case rate of 144 per 100,000 residents and a positive test percentage of 5.7%.
Normally, a large county would have to have a per capita rate under 50 and a positive test rate below 5% to qualify for lower level risk status.
But Brown and OHA officials have said the high percentage of vaccinations mean a spike in cases is highly unlikely.
Multnomah County also submitted a state-required plan on how it would continue outreach to underserved residents yet to be vaccinated.
The assignment to lower risk level would allow up to 8,900 fans into the Moda Center for the game. Previously, about 1,900 fans were allowed to attend a handful of games at the end of the regular NBA season.
Brown said that under a new policy, the Moda Center could offer special seating to fans who showed their vaccination cards when entering the arena.
The sections would allow fans to take off masks and sit close together. Those without vaccination proof would sit in sections where masks and social distancing rules would be enforced.
Brown said the Moda Center was just the first venue to have the vaccinated sections and that the option would be offered in counties that hit the 65% vaccination rates.
Restaurants, theaters, gyms, faith institutions and public events could opt for the plan if they required verification of vaccination.
More information on how the plan would be implemented would be forthcoming Thursday, Brown said.
But any vision of throngs of vaccinated, bare-faced Trail Blazers fans cheering and slapping high-fives with strangers in a special seating area were rapidly evaporating by Tuesday evening.
The Portland Trail Blazers posted a message on the Rose Quarter website, which includes the team and the Moda Center, with the realities of attendance.
“Out of an abundance of caution and regardless of vaccination status, all fans must wear a mask throughout Moda Center, except when actively eating or drinking in a designated eating area or their ticketed seat,” the statement said.
The new section would have less physical distancing, but fans would still be separated on each side by an empty seat.
The move came as some Portland-area health officials went public with concerns that the maskless sections could send the wrong message in a city still fighting COVID-19.
Criticism of Brown's plan has come in part from some of the same opponents who opposed masks during the pandemic, lobbied for lifting restrictions on businesses and crowd sizes.
Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, had criticized Brown's new policy earlier in the week by noting the strong feelings about masks "on both sides."
But volatility over the requirement to show vaccination cards ramped up quickly among opponents of previous COVID-19 restrictions.
Brown first announced the lifting of mask requirements at businesses on May 18.
The Enchanted Forest, a longtime children's adventure park near Salem, quickly announced it was reopening and would follow the governor's rules require adults to show they were vaccinated if they did not wear masks in the park.
The blowback from vaccine and masking opponents was immediate and intense, fueled by posts on Facebook groups and other social media.
After a deluge of angry messages — some including threats to the park or workers — the owners reversed course and said the opening would be delayed to a later, unspecified date.
Much of the turmoil over COVID-19 rules has been caused by the fragmentation of policies in the 50 states.
While federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consulted with local officials across the country, public health decisions fall under the role of states. That's led to a patchwork of often contradictory measures separated by nothing more than a state line.
Health officials in Oregon, California and Washington pledged early in the pandemic crisis to work together and keep policies in sync as much as possible. The same could not be said of Idaho, which opted for far fewer restrictions on activity and less stringent mask rules.
But the trio of West Coast states have hardly been monolithic in their responses.
California and Washington went much wider and earlier with vaccination priority for all residents 65 and over. Oregon stuck with a series of priority groups determined by OHA and an advisory council created by Brown.
Newsom has announced all students at California's massive University of California and California State University systems must be vaccinated prior to being allowed to take part in in-person classes in the fall.
While Brown said at a press call last month that she thought the mandatory vaccinations ordered by Newson were a good idea, she said she was not ready to issue an edict.
Oregon has allowed each university to make separate announcements of their plans. So far, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University have all announced that vaccinations will be required for on-campus classes.
Brown's boldest initiative has been the new policy to require the display of vaccine cards in selected situations.
Oregon Health officials wanted residents to be more assured when going to a "vaccinated-only" area than just the promise of others that they were obeying the law.
The idea of segregated access for those who have been inoculated and those who haven't hasn't gained traction in a majority of states.
Fourteen states have created or are working on ways to keep potential virus spreaders away from others.
But the sticking point always comes back to how to really know if vaccinated-only areas included only the truly vaccinated.
The answer everywhere but Oregon is to trust people to do the right thing.
In a politically fractured nation where masks, vaccines, in-person school instruction and large gatherings have become grist for often hyperventilating debate, that's a leap of faith. But it's the approach suggested by the CDC.
For now, Brown is not moving toward another change of policy.
She's already made changes to the state's original four-tier COVID-19 risk level system that dictated how severe restrictions in counties were.
Earlier, Brown said no counties would be put in the extreme risk level was long as the entire state has fewer than 300 COVID-19 patients in hospitals and the number didn't grow by 5%. There are currently 274 patients, well below the threshold.
The new 65% inoculation waiver is meant to underline that vaccination rates are the key to a return to something approaching pre-pandemic life
"Vaccines are very effective in keeping people safe from COVID-19," Brown said Tuesday. "They are the key to returning to normal life and lifting health and safety restrictions statewide."
But in the short term, the vaccination rate waivers have led to anomalies.
Deschutes County this week reported some of the highest infection rates in the state: 372.4 cases per 100,000 population and an 8.2% rate of positive tests.
Under the original guidelines, the county would be at extreme risk with limits just short of the kind of lockdowns experienced in the state early in the pandemic.
But because Deschutes County has been certified as having administered at least one shot to 65% of its residents, the county's COVID-19 risk level is set at lower, the tier with the fewest limits on activities and businesses.
Its next door neighbors, Crook and Jefferson counties, also have some of the highest rates in the state. But their lower vaccination rates placed them in the high risk category, the most stringent currently applied by OHA.
Clackamas, Jackson, Lane, Marion, Malheur, Polk and Umatilla have lower per capita numbers of COVID-19 cases than Deschutes County. Yet, all are among the 15 counties rated at high risk.
The chances of those counties moving to lower level are mixed, depending on where they are in their vaccination campaign.
Clackamas, Lane and Polk have all vaccinated more than 60% of eligible residents and could apply for waivers soon. Marion has passed the 50% mark.
But Umatilla and Malheur have each vaccinated less than 35% of the eligible group, while Jackson is a tick below 50%.
Unless there is a major shift to higher vaccinations and lower infections, many counties will have to wait until Oregon registers an overall 70% mark for residents with one shot of vaccine.
As of Wednesday afternoon, OHA reports 61.2% of the state residents have received at least one shot of vaccine.
Brown has said at that point, all 36 counties will move to lower level no matter their local case and infection numbers.