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Alex Zielinski

Mayor Ted Wheeler has declared a state of emergency in Portland in response to the spreading COVID-19 virus.

"It gives the city additional authority to properly address the threat of infection and harm," Wheeler said at a morning press conference, where Governor Kate Brown announced new restrictions to statewide gatherings.

This declaration, which gives Wheeler power to prohibit the number of people who gather in public spaces, will remain in effect until March 26—but it can be extended in two-week increments. While a Portland mayor is legally allowed to take control of all city bureaus after a state of emergency is declared, Wheeler's declaration notes that "the current bureau assignment to the members of City Council shall remain in effect as delegated."

Under a state of emergency, Portland's city code also allows a mayor to coordinate with public and private relief agencies, order evacuations, establish a curfew, enforce rent control, and blockade streets, among other things. None of those actions have yet been taken.

Wheeler told reporters Thursday that he's considering cancelling or limiting city council meetings. "At a minimum we will implement social distancing requirements," he said, "but everything is on the table."

Wheeler said the city will refrain from shutting off water due to unpaid bills during the state of emergency.

"The city has decided to do this to ensure that everyone has access to the utilities they need to stay healthy and not worry for the time being if they're going through a financial hardship," said Wheeler.

Wheeler said the city has expanded the number of portable toilets and public hand-washing stations, and has expanded shelter bed capacity for houseless Portlanders by opening emergency shelters and dispersing hotel room vouchers. The city has also postponed non-essential work gatherings and travel for city employees during the state of emergency.

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Wheeler announced plans to build a city task force to address the economic losses caused by COVID-19 concerns.

"COVID-19 has been jarring for every one of us," Wheeler said. "Nonprofits have had to cancel yearly fundraisers. Arts and cultural institutions will be severely impacted. Small and large businesses are already developing contingency. People are at risk of being laid off. I share this to tell you that we see, we hear, and we understand the anxiety and fears that people are expressing."

He continued: "I want to say this loud and clear: All of us here are working round-the-clock to make sure your health and your safety are protected. We're making every decision with that priority in mind."