Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury at a March press conference.
Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury at a March press conference. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

Multnomah County will request permission next week from Gov. Kate Brown to enter the first stage of reopening area businesses to the public.

At a Wednesday afternoon press conference, Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said the county plans on submitting its request on Friday, June 5. If approved, the state's most populated county could enter Phase 1 of Brown's reopening plan as soon as June 12.

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“From the very first COVID-19 case in Oregon, my goal has been to keep as many people alive as possible," said Kafoury. "And together, we’ve done that. By staying home we’ve seen hospitalizations go down and deaths decreasing, so we’ve flattened the curve.”

The most recent data from Multnomah County has shown the number of positive COVID-19 cases reported in the area incrementally dropping.

Multnomah County is the only county in Oregon that hasn't applied to qualify for Brown's reopening plan. And nearly every county outside of Multnomah has been granted permission to begin the reopening process (Washington County's application is currently being reviewed by the state). Neighboring Clackamas County was the latest to gain Brown's approval, reopening under Phase 1 last weekend.

To get Brown's approval, Multnomah County must show a steady decline in positive COVID-19 cases and prove that the area has adequate hospital space, protective equipment, testing capacity, and public health investigators to respond to a potential resurgence of the virus once businesses begin to reopen. According to Kafoury, the county has met nearly all of those metrics.

"We're very close to meeting the state's criteria," she said Wednesday.

Public Health Director Rachael Banks said that the county still needs to hire 112 contract tracers to track positive COVID-19 cases, and needs to cement its ability to offer COVID-19 tests to underserved and vulnerable communities. Banks said the county's working on a specific plan to guarantee that Multnomah County's Black, Indigenous and People of Color (BIPOC) population have equitable access to health care and testing as the region reopens.

"We have added additional supports and strategies for working with communities of color to make sure disparities aren’t worse for them," Banks said.

If Multnomah County is approved for Phase 1, restaurants, bars, salons, gyms, and all retail businesses will be allowed to reopen, as long as they follow certain criteria.

For bars and restaurants, that means ensuring tables are spaced at least six feet apart and closing at 10 pm. For salons, spas, and tattoo parlors, that means businesses must maintain a customer log of all clients and keep six feet between each customer. This approval also allows groups of 25 people or more to gather, as long as they remain at least six feet apart.

Kafoury said she believes the county will meet Phase 1 metrics by June 5, but will request a June 12 start date to give businesses adequate time to prepare to meet the new safety criteria.

“We’ve seen what has happened in our country and our own state when people have moved quickly to reopen, and the outcome has not been great," she said.

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A number of populous Oregon counties that have reopened—including Marion, Lane, and Deshutes—have already seen new infections increase significantly since entering Phase 1.

County heath officials say they're prepared to reverse the reopening plan if hospitals become overwhelmed with patients, or the county's supply to personal protective equipment diminishes. On the other hand, if Multnomah County can sustain its Phase 1 status over a three week period, it can apply to enter the second phase of reopening. No Oregon county has reached this point yet.

"A minimum of three weeks allows enough time for people to decide to mix, for the virus to potentially spread, for it to potentially make some people ill, bring them to get testing, get the test results..... all of that has to play out," said County Health Director Jennifer Vines. "All of these things have to be carefully balanced... to feel like we're doing right by our community."

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