Local officials across Oregon got a verbal spanking from the governor last week.
It didn’t sit well. County leaders responded by saying the governor and the state should do their jobs instead of complaining that local governments needed to be more aggressive in combating COVID-19.
There is irony that local officials are upset with Democratic Gov. Kate Brown and the Democratic legislative leadership in the same way that Brown is irritated with Republican President Donald Trump and Congress regarding the federal coronavirus response.
Talking with reporters last week, House Speaker Tina Kotek repeatedly said the federal government needed to step up to help Oregonians. Meanwhile, county and city officials, especially ones outside the Portland metro area, contend that Brown and the Legislature are hogging the federal aid.
At Friday’s telephone and YouTube press conference, Brown said more must be done to slow the transmission of the coronavirus. Otherwise, public schools might not reopen for at least six months. She called on local officials to lead by example, to educate people about why the state’s COVID-19 protocols matter and to enforce her executive orders.
“We know that the tools that we have in place are working,” Brown said. “But we don’t know specifically the impact of each tool — the percentage decrease that results in reduction in virus transmission.”
In other words, health officials can’t quantify the individual impact of each regulation or health practice that has been put in place.
But if community leaders didn’t step up their game, Brown said, she might have to further close businesses and/or impose quarantines on travelers from out of state. According to the governor, not enough is being done in some counties to monitor physical distancing and wearing of face masks and to deter people from holding large social gatherings. She also said some law enforcement officers refuse to wear masks while on duty.
Brown did not identify the counties with these perceived failures or whether they had resulted in specific outbreaks of COVID-19.
The Association of Oregon Counties responded with a 700-word statement, expressing surprise and consternation at Brown’s remarks. Among the comments was one reminiscent of Brown’s criticism of the Trump administration: The association said the state continues to waver on the metrics for “reopening.”
“A one-size-fits-all approach will not work as well as community-based responses. Unfortunately, with continued changes in standards, it becomes challenging to ‘educate' related to enforcement measures,” the association said.
“Additionally, the primary source of COVID-19 outbreaks in many Oregon communities has not been a failure of businesses to follow mandates and guidance. The primary source is family and other social gatherings that are not capable of being prevented by enforcement. Retail businesses should not be penalized in an already economically devastating time, when they are not the source of spread.”
During a telephone press conference this week, Oregon Health Authority officials gave examples — apparently from earlier this summer — of how social gatherings may have resulted in significant coronavirus transmissions to family members, coworkers and others who were not at those initial gatherings.
Association of Oregon Counties Executive Director Gina Firman Nikkel said that achieving Brown’s increased expectations would “require additional resources that the State has yet to distribute.”
According to the association, Oregon received $1.389 billion in coronavirus relief funds through the federal CARES Act, with 45 percent to go to counties and local governments. That portion would be $624.8 million, but the state has distributed merely $200 million and only on a reimbursement basis. The League of Oregon Cities and business groups have sided with the Association of Oregon Counties.
“The decision of the State to withhold, and ultimately spend resources intended for counties and local government response efforts makes it even more difficult for counties to effectively respond to the governor’s call for more assistance from counties,” the association said.
Hmm. Practically everyone keeps saying, “We’re all in this together.” Between Oregon’s state and local officials, that togetherness is not always evident.
That was quick: Last Friday’s Capital Chatter highlighted the $500 checks newly available for any Oregonian who could claim severe economic distress due to Brown’s executive orders. Within hours of the column being published, the money was used up — $35 million spread among 70,000 people.
Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney had conceived of the program as a means to help unemployed Oregonians who had waited months for their jobless benefits, but Kotek and Courtney are not tracking how many recipients actually were in that category. Still, the legislative leaders lauded the money giveaway as a tremendously successful innovation.
Some legislators were frustrated that the program did not ensure that the $500 payments went to Oregonians who had waited the longest for unemployment benefits. Rather, the money was dispensed on a first-come, first-serve basis at more than 150 credit union and bank branches. Some people waited in line at least six hours, arriving as early as 2 a.m. Other locations took appointments until all the slots were filled.
Kotek stressed that the setup was beneficial to people who lacked online access and would have been unable to apply online.
Irony, again. The Oregon Capitol was closed to the public during the two special legislative sessions this summer dealing with the pandemic. No public hearings were held during the 15-hour session on Aug. 11, where a dozen bills were considered. Courtney, and especially Kotek, had noted that the public could watch online, view the proceedings on monitors set up outside the Capitol, and submit written testimony by email. What about those Oregonians who are not online?
Speaking of online: The Legislature, which does have an informative website, is moving to a new, “modern” — that is, no Internet Explorer — online service for videos of committee meetings, floor sessions and other events. It was scheduled to go live Thursday.
The Legislature’s IT staff described it this way: “The new streaming service will provide a cleaner interface, improved security, and ensure reliable public access.”