Customers grab drinks at Vagabond Brewing, 2195 Hyacinth St. N.E., during the first phase of Salem's reopening on Friday, May 22. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Residents in the Salem area on Friday can once again go to the movies, play Pac-Man at an arcade or take a dip in a public pool as Marion and Polk counties were cleared to relax state restrictions in place since March.
But Gov. Kate Brown on Wednesday also gave people a new order: Wear face masks indoors. Her announcement gave grocery stores as an example of where people now have no choice about the masks. Her office provided no additional details about the order, but the governor has scheduled a news conference for Thursday about the matter.
Brown said her new order is effective Wednesday, June 24, for indoor public spaces in Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas, Hood River, Marion, Polk, and Lincoln counties. The release didn’t specify how the edict would be enforced or whether there would be exceptions for people eating or drinking.
The new order is on top of her earlier mandate that certain workers, such as those in restaurants or in personal service industries, wear the masks.
Otherwise, the relaxed standards for what’s considered phase two of retreating from state restrictions will take hold in Marion and Polk counties on Friday, June 19.
The two counties were left out of Brown’s decision earlier this month freeing most counties to move to the lower restrictions. That was because of concerns about the growing number of cases of people infected with the coronavirus.
Marion County Commissioner Colm Willis said he was pleased that the county’s approval for phase two was more in line with a community approach.
“It’s an important step and it’s a testament to all of the hard work here in Marion County,” Willis said.
He said the county is still waiting to get guidelines from the governor’s office on the mask requirement and how it will be enforced.
Under phase two, bars and restaurants can stay open two hours later, until midnight, and places of worship can allow up to 250 people if their building can accommodate six feet of space between groups.
The looser restrictions increase the amount of people allowed to gather indoors to 50 and increase outdoor gatherings to 100.
Brown also announced that Marion and Polk counties would be grouped together for future opening decisions.
Polk County Commissioner Lyle Mordhorst said it’s a relief knowing the county gets to take one step forward.
“There’s a lot of work to do this summer and delaying it as late as we are is going to be another major challenge,” he said. “There is no guarantee on anything with this. The rules change daily.”
The Salem business community welcomed the development.
“We know that the road ahead is long but entering into phase two is yet another step forward in our Salem businesses being in a better situation for long-term viability,” said Tom Hoffert, Salem Area Chamber of Commerce CEO.
He said many businesses that have “conquered the Rubik's Cube” of complying with social distancing and sanitation to open safely and are ready for the new phase. But he added that businesses will still face challenges over obtaining personal protective equipment and complying with sanitation and social distancing requirements.
He said that he wasn’t surprised by the mask requirement imposed by the governor. He hesitated to speculate on if the requirement would be a stumbling block for businesses but said that masks have been well-received by many.
Loretta Miles, the owner of Salem Cinema in downtown Salem, said in an email that she will need some time to resupply her theater and schedule movies after being closed for three months.
“Once the county is approved for phase two it will take me a minute or two to get everything in place for a safe return to the wonderful world of film exhibition,” she said.
Tony Fraizer, director of the Salvation Army Kroc Center, said the new phase was “great news.”
He said that the center’s fitness and leisure pools have been popular amenities with members for swim and exercise lessons as well as lap swimming. Each will be limited to 50 people after reopening and the center will adhere to state health guidelines.
For now, locker rooms will be closed, meaning swimmers will have to show up and leave in their swim gear, he said.
Frazier said that the center started day camps this week and 52 kids were enrolled so far. He said that the relaxed restrictions means that they can now have 100 kids in camps that include Dance Off, Lego Inventor, Climbing Camp and Cupcake Wars and others. Each camp will be limited to 10 kids who will have the same counselor and will use the same classroom and bathroom.
In the announcement, Brown pointed to declining hospitalizations for COVID-19 in Marion and Polk counties despite increases in the number of people testing as infected in recent weeks.
A memo from Oregon Health Authority accompanying the announcement said Polk County has had no new hospitalizations related to the virus in two weeks.
Marion County’s hospitalization rate is decreasing, the memo said, though it did not provide numbers. Throughout the pandemic, OHA has persistently refused to disclose the county hospitalization rates in response to requests from Salem Reporter and other media outlets, citing privacy concerns.
Brown also said both counties have been quick to follow up on new cases.
Marion County has had 1,218 residents with COVID-19 since early March, with 137 people added in the past week, about 20 per day on average. Thirty-one county residents have died and 390 have recovered.
In Polk County, 128 residents have tested positive for the virus to date, with 12 deaths and 77 recoveries.
For much of the pandemic, Marion County had the highest rate of residents confirmed to have the virus in Oregon, though Lincoln and Union counties have recently surpassed Marion due to large outbreaks at a seafood processing plant and church, respectively.
In Marion County, the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive over the past week was about 7.4%, lower than the county’s average since the pandemic began, but far higher than Oregon’s average of 3.1% positive tests.
A lower positive test percentage and lower hospitalization rate are important because they show health officials are catching more people who have the virus, rather than only the sickest residents who are more likely to be hospitalized.