Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday morning that 28 Oregon counties can begin Phase One of her reopening plan on Friday—but Multnomah County likely won’t be reopening anytime soon.
In a press conference Thursday, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury told reporters that the key to reopening the county will be an increase in funding for personal protective equipment (PPE), hiring contact tracers to track the spread of the virus, and other supplies, and that more funding “feels out of reach” right now.
“I don’t want to set unrealistic expectations for the public that it’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or anytime in the near future,” Kafoury said.
That means that while individual retailers and childcare centers statewide can reopen on Friday under Brown’s guidance, other Multnomah County businesses—like salons, spas, restaurants, and bars—will need to stay closed or takeout-only for the time being.
Kafoury pointed out that Oregon received $1.7 billion from the federal CARES act to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, but that the state only allocated $28 million to Multnomah County. That’s less than two percent of the funding the state received, although Multnomah County is home to 20 percent of Oregonians. The City of Portland received an additional $114 million.
“It is not enough,” Kafoury said about the funding.
Jennifer Vines, the county’s health officer, said that waiting to reopen would be necessary to ensure there isn’t a sharp increase in COVID-19 cases.
“We need to reopen carefully,” Vines said, “knowing COVID-19 will be more likely to spread as people mix.”
County officials presented a new online dashboard that lays out goals the county will need to hit before it applies to enter Phase One of the state’s reopening process. The dashboard shows that Multnomah County has met much of the state’s criteria, including a two-week decline in COVID-19 hospital admissions; having enough isolation facilities (like hotel rooms and shelters) for people who need a safe place to quarantine; having a testing capacity of at least 30 per 10,000 residents every week.
But in other areas, the county is still lagging. It still doesn’t have enough PPE for all county first responders and social service providers, and it has only 20 percent of the contact tracers needed to serve the county’s population size. Contact tracers track who each person who tests positive for COVID-19 has come into contact with to limit its spread.
Of the 122 contact tracers Multnomah County needs, it currently has only 35.
“To hire all of these vital, crucial contact tracers… it costs money,” Kafoury said. “We have to make some really tough decisions about where we’re going to find those dollars.”
In addition to the state’s requirements for reopening, Multnomah County has set its own unique standards for entering the reopening process. That includes seeing a reduced COVID-19 impact on communities of color, and providing testing sites that are accessible for underserved communities. The coronavirus has so far had an outsized impact on Black residents and other people of color, both in Multnomah County and across the United States.
Some retailers and childcare providers will be opening in Multnomah County in the coming weeks. Kafoury said that partial reopening will serve as a “test case” for how the county fares when people start leaving their homes more often.
“[We will] see how having a new number of people out, using transit, walking the streets, entering facilities—how that will after the numbers we have in Multnomah County,” she said.