Gov. Kate Brown is getting blowback from political opponents who are leveraging the actions of her allies in an attempt to derail a new state policy requiring Oregon residents to show proof of vaccination at some venues and businesses with more relaxed COVID-19 rules.
Brown had announced the new policy earlier this month as a new way to build confidence in when and where someone might be exposed to COVID-19.
"This disease remains dangerous for those in communities with high rates of unvaccinated individuals," Brown said. "That's why I'm encouraging all Oregonians to roll up your sleeves, take your shot, and get a chance to change your life."
While Brown has framed the issue as one of public health, opponents say it's about privacy and personal choice.
The 23-member House Republican Caucus wrote to Brown on Thursday calling on her to reverse plans for what they called a "vaccination passport" — a term popular among conservatives to describe the COVID-19 inoculation certificates approved by the Centers for Disease Control.
House Minority Leader Christine Drazan, R-Canby, and the rest of the caucus invoked recent decisions by two Brown allies: Washington Gov. Jay Inslee and California Gov. Gavin Newsom.
Inslee and Newsom administration officials have said they will not require residents of their states to produce proof of inoculation in circumstances where entry to a venue or building requires the person be vaccinated against COVID-19.
The House Republican letter said Oregon should be in step with its neighbors as it has been on many — though not all — COVID-19 policies.
"Oregon's response to COVID-19 should not be an outlier on the West Coast," the Republicans wrote. "We are reaching the end of the pandemic and should be lifting mandates, not adding new ones. It is time to place our trust in Oregonians again. They have earned it."
Brown has said showing certification is a small inconvenience to ensure that someone who might spread a disease that has killed over 591,000 Americans doesn't get close to people they might infect.
The salvo from the House Republicans was part of a barrage fired at Brown's plans over the past week.
A letter from the National Grocers Association and 10 other major retail groups has asked federal health and worker safety officials to stop Brown from requiring employees to ask for and verify vaccination cards. Making frontline workers the gatekeepers and enforcers of state policy was inappropriate and potentially dangerous, the letter said.
The criticism came as what was supposed to be a showcase for the state's new policy on vaccinated sections in venues has been scaled back and watered down by key participants.
The National Basketball Association and Brown simultaneously announced Monday that Thursday's NBA playoff game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets would operate under new rules tied to a successful COVID-19 vaccination effort in Multnomah County. Up to 8,900 fans would be allowed into the Moda Center for the game, a big jump from the 1,900 who were let in for a handful of games at the end of the regular season this year.
Brown said that under a new policy, fans who showed their vaccination certification when entering the arena could sit in new vaccinated sections where they would not have to wear masks and socially distance as required by fans in other parts of the arena.
The game plan was all possible because Multnomah County had become one of six counties in the state to certify that it had put at least one shot of vaccine into 65% of its residents and submitted a plan for outreach to underserved residents still needing inoculation.
Brown said the Moda Center was just the first Oregon venue to have the vaccinated sections and that the option would be offered in counties that hit the 65% vaccination rates. Restaurants, theaters, gyms, faith institutions and public events could opt for the plan if they required verification of vaccination. More information on how the plan would be implemented would be forthcoming Thursday, Brown said.
Any visions of throngs of vaccinated, bare-faced NBA fans cheering and slapping high-fives with strangers in a special seating area were rapidly evaporating by Tuesday evening.
The Portland Trail Blazers posted a message on the Rose Quarter website, which includes the team and the Moda Center, with the realities of attendance.
“Out of an abundance of caution and regardless of vaccination status, all fans must wear a mask throughout Moda Center, except when actively eating or drinking in a designated eating area or their ticketed seat,” the statement said.
The new section would have less physical distancing, but fans would still be separated on each side by an empty seat.
The move came as some Portland-area health officials went public with concerns that the maskless sections could send the wrong message in a city still fighting COVID-19.
Some of the opposition to the plan to require showing proof of vaccination came from politicians and others who had opposed masks at different points in the pandemic and had lobbied for lifting restrictions on businesses and crowds despite high levels of infection in many areas of the state.
While Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, had criticized Brown's new policy earlier in the week by noting the strong feelings about masks "on both sides," the volatility against showing certificates surfaced quickly among opponents of COVID-19 restrictions.
The Enchanted Forest, a longtime children's adventure park near Salem, announced it was reopening and would require adults to show they were vaccinated. The blowback from vaccine and masking opponents was immediate and intense, fueled by posts on Facebook groups and other social media.
After a deluge of angry messages — some including threats to the park or workers — the owners reversed course and said the opening would be delayed to a later, unspecified date.
While federal agencies such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have consulted with local officials across the country, public health decisions fall under the role of states. That's led to a patchwork of often contradictory measures, even with neighboring states such as Oregon and Idaho.
Health officials in Oregon, California and Washington pledged early in the pandemic crisis to work together and keep policies in sync as much as possible. The same could not be said of Idaho, which opted for far fewer restrictions on activity and less stringent mask rules.
But the trio of West Coast states have hardly been monolithic in their responses. California and Washington went much wider, earlier with vaccination priority for all residents 65 and over, while Oregon stuck with a more step-by-step approach of priority groups.
Newsom has announced all students at California's massive University of California and California State University systems must be vaccinated prior to being allowed to take part in in-person classes in the fall.
While Brown said at a press call last month that she thought the mandatory vaccinations ordered by Newsom were a good idea, in practice, Oregon has allowed each university to make separate announcements of their plans. So far, the University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University have all announced that vaccinations will be required.
Brown's boldest initiative has been to require the display of vaccine cards in selected situations. Oregon Health officials wanted residents to be more assured when going to a "vaccinated-only" area than just the promise of others that they were obeying the law.
The idea of segregated access for those who have been inoculated and those who haven't hasn't gained traction in a majority of states, but 14 have created or are working on ways to keep potential virus spreaders away from others. But the sticking point always comes back to how to really know if vaccinated-only areas included only the truly vaccinated.
The most common answer is trust. In a politically fractured nation where masks, vaccines, in-person school instruction and large gatherings have become grist for often hyperventilating debate, that's a leap of faith. But it's the approach suggested by the CDC.
For now, Brown is not moving toward another change of policy.
She's already made changes to the state's original four-tier COVID-19 risk level system that dictated how severe restrictions in counties were.
Earlier, Brown said no counties would be put in the extreme risk level was long as the entire state has fewer than 300 COVID-19 patients in hospitals and the number didn't grow by 5%. There are currently 274 patients, well below the threshold. That alone keeps Crook, Jefferson and some of the other counties on the high risk list from ascending to extreme risk.
Then Brown announced this change: Get a shot of vaccine into the arms of 65% of eligible residents age 16 and up and any county could be dropped to the least restrictive level of rules.
Brown has said that waiver shows that vaccination, not just infection rate, is the way back to something approaching normality.
"Vaccines are very effective in keeping people safe from COVID-19," Brown said Tuesday. "They are the key to returning to normal life and lifting health and safety restrictions statewide."
But in the short term, the vaccination rate waivers have led to anomalies.
Deschutes County this week reported some of the highest infection rates in the state: 372.4 cases per 100,000 population and an 8.2% rate of positive tests.
Under the original guidelines, the county would be at extreme risk with limits just short of the kind of lockdowns experienced in the state early in the pandemic.
But because Deschutes County has been certified as having administered at least one shot to 65% of its residents, the county's COVID-19 risk level is set at lower, the tier with the fewest limits on activities and businesses.
It's next door neighbors, Crook and Jefferson counties, also have some of the highest rates in the state and are under high level restrictions this week, the most stringent currently applied by OHA.
Clackamas, Jackson, Lane, Marion, Malheur, Polk and Umatilla have lower per capita rates than Deschutes County — some less than half. Yet, all are among the 15 counties rated at high risk. The chances of those counties moving to lower level are mixed, depending on where they are in their vaccination campaign.
Clackamas, Lane and Polk have all vaccinated more than 60% of eligible residents and could get waivers soon. Marion has passed the 50% mark.
But Umatilla and Malheur have each vaccinated less than 35% of the eligible group, while Jackson is a tick below 50%.
Unless there is a major shift to higher vaccinations and lower infections, many counties will have to wait until Oregon registers an overall 70% mark for residents with one shot of vaccine.
Brown has said at that point, all 36 counties will move to lower level no matter their local case and infection numbers.