Gov. Kate Brown threw Oregon’s county commissioners under the COVID-19 bus this week.
Their inaction is to blame for her reinstituting a statewide mask mandate, the governor said during a during a press conference Wednesday. The 45-minute session on Zoom went round and round as reporters asked the same questions over and over and Brown gave unvarying answers.
Brown had expected local officials to do the right thing. That is, decide on their own to require facemasks in indoor public spaces within their county.
Brown saw county officials unable to make tough decisions. That is, decree a mask mandate as opposed to letting residents make their own choices.
As for reporters, they repeatedly pressed the governor on whether she erred by ending many public health restrictions six weeks ago. The especially dangerous Delta form of the coronavirus was spreading quickly. Why wait until this week to reimpose a mask mandate in hopes of slowing the spread?
No one asked whether the mask mandate was a wrongful intrusion on personal decision-making. A sizeable percentage of local elected officials and their constituents believe it is.
Minutes before Brown’s press conference began, the Marion County Board of Commissioners took a different path. The commissioners passed a resolution asking Brown to reconsider her directive that K-12 students must wear masks while indoors at school this year.
“Everybody has the choice to wear a mask. Nobody should be forced to wear a mask,” said Commissioner Danielle Bethell, who also serves on the Salem-Keizer School Board.
The resolution noted that on June 30, the governor “rescinded state mask requirements and lifted all COVID-19 restrictions in Oregon, stating that going forward, response to COVID-19 would be delegated to local control.” A month later, Brown initiated the statewide mask requirement for schools, overruling local control.
Counties run almost all local health departments Oregon. “We are simply asking the governor to let us do our job, and we’re really good at it,” Bethell said. “I believe the governor is out of line. And this roller-coaster that we have been on, because she doesn’t think that we know what’s best, is unacceptable.”
Just in the past six weeks:
— On June 30, Brown held a by-invitation-only outdoor event to celebrate that Oregon was now “100% open for business.” That seemed odd, given that she in essence was celebrating — probably prematurely — that Oregon businesses and consumers had survived the dozens of coronavirus-related edicts issued by the governor and her agencies.
— Through most of July, Brown’s staff and other officials reaffirmed that statewide measures no longer were needed. They encouraged local officials to take any necessary action.
— On July 27, the Oregon Health Authority recommended “universal mask use in public indoor settings throughout the state to protect Oregonians from COVID-19.”
— On July 29, the governor announced the statewide mask mandate for schools, citing the more-contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus.
— On July 30, Brown required masks for employees and visitors in most state offices — agencies that are part of the executive branch.
— On Aug. 4, she announced that health-care workers across Oregon must either get vaccinated against the coronavirus or undergo weekly testing.
— On Aug. 9, she issued a statement praising Multnomah County, which was the only county to reinstate a mask requirement indoor.
“From the beginning of this pandemic, city and county leaders have asked me for local control and the ability to make local public health decisions when it comes to COVID-19,” her statement said. “Last week, I spoke with county leaders statewide, and several elected officials from the areas of our state seeing the largest spikes in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations asked me not to take statewide action, and again asked for local control.
“I am calling on local leaders to take action now to institute mask requirements. At this point in the pandemic, local leaders are in a unique position to help deliver the message to members of their communities about effective safety measures like vaccination and masks.”
The next day, Brown announced that she would issue new indoor mask requirements, and all state employees in the executive branch must get vaccinated.
Then came Wednesday, with both her press conference and the Marion County commissioners’ weekly business meeting. The opposing storylines illustrate Oregon’s divide.
Brown is a Democrat. She and Oregon Health Authority officials explained and emphasized the indoors mask mandate that takes effect Friday.
“I expected local elected officials to step up and do the right thing," Brown said again and again. "What is clear is they are not taking action. That is why we are moving forward."
The three Marion County commissioners are Republicans. They met in person at county offices in downtown Salem only a few blocks from the Oregon Capitol. They heard nearly an hour of passionate public testimony before unanimously passing the resolution. Board chair Kevin Cameron wore a mask, as he routinely does in indoor public settings. Bethell and Commissioner Colm Willis were maskless.
Brown’s choice to disparage county officials seems equally pointless and counter-productive. What good does it do to pick fights with 35 of Oregon’s 36 counties, all but the county that is home to Portland?
Neither is confidence inspired by seesaw decision-making from the Governor’s Office. Of course, that might not matter. Those who support and agree with Brown already follow her and medical experts’ advice. Those who disagree will not be swayed by her comments. They have no faith in her leadership.
Traveling through parts of Southern Oregon in May, particularly Klamath and Lake counties, I encountered people who heeded the mask mandate then in force and people who simply ignored it. Why would anything presume Brown’s new mandate, press conference and denunciation of local officials would alter that behavior?
Oregon is so polarized that research suggests that in regions with low compliance, the best way to encourage vaccinations, masking and other health protocols is for the state to stay out of the limelight. Instead, recognize that individuals are influenced by people whom they trust.
That is common sense. And smart politics.
The impacts of coronavirus are real. Ten vaccinated Oregonians and 45 unvaccinated individuals died from COVID last month. On Thursday, OHA reported a one-day record for new COVID-19 cases across the state: 2,387.