Union County, the rural northeastern Oregon county home to the state’s largest coronavirus outbreak, voluntarily returned to Phase 1 of Gov. Kate Brown’s coronavirus reopening plan Wednesday.
The county is the first in Oregon to step backward under the governor’s gradual reopening guidelines. The move came after the county recorded a giant spike in coronavirus cases, from 22 on Sunday to 242 as of Wednesday.
Union County had entered Phase 2 of Brown’s reopening plan June 5. Under stricter Phase 1 regulations, gatherings are limited to 25 people or fewer, and churches are not allowed to meet in large groups.
State public health officials have linked the county’s outbreak to Lighthouse Pentecostal Church in Island City, next to La Grande.
The Northeast Oregon Joint Information Center, which helps coordinate Union County’s emergency response, issued a statement Wednesday explaining the county’s decision to return to Phase 1.
“This decision was made due to the significant rise in confirmed COVID-19 case numbers, concerns for the protection of the community, and concerns for impacts to Grande Ronde Hospital,” the statement said.
“Voluntary adherence by citizens will apply to individuals, businesses and organizations, although many have already voluntarily returned to the Phase 1 guidance.”
Union County has a population of about 27,000. La Grande is the hub of the county, said Suzannah Moore-Hemann, executive director of the Union County Chamber of Commerce.
She believes voluntarily moving back to Phase 1 is a good idea for the community’s safety, but said the move will be painful for the economy.
“We just entered Phase 2 two weeks ago,” Moore-Hemann said. “That’s not even enough time to start generating revenue to make up for the first closure. I’m sure a lot of the businesses are going back to experiencing a really drastically reduced revenue stream.”
The chamber serves as a source of information, and Moore-Hemann said the ever-changing news means she doesn’t have all the answers to the questions that business owners are asking.
“It’s really anxiety inducing — the unknown, feeling the stress and hardship for our businesses,” Moore-Hemann said. “You almost feel helpless when you’re thinking, ‘I wish there was more that we can do.’ I wish I could give more concrete answers.‘”
Gabi McCauley grew up and lives in Union County and worked as a nurse for 12 years in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. She said in a small community like La Grande, the high volume of cases could devastate the community.
“It’s just going to be so bad if they don’t get it under control,” McCauley said.
State and county public health officials say they are taking steps to stop the virus from spreading far beyond Lighthouse Pentecostal Church.
Tom Jeanne, the state’s deputy epidemiologist, said Tuesday that at least 236 cases are linked to the church.
Despite the severity of the outbreak, Tim Heider, a spokesman for the Oregon Health Authority, said the state was confident in the number of case investigators and contact tracers it had responding to the outbreak.
Most congregants have already been tested for the virus. Contact tracers are working to identify close contacts of those congregants that may have been exposed, but Heider could not say how many close contacts would be tested for the virus.
Jeanne said the Oregon Health Authority provided 10 employees to help the county’s five contact tracers. He said two of those state workers were on the ground in Union County and the other eight were working remotely. Neighboring counties are also helping, he said.
Joseph Fiumara, county public health director for Umatilla County, said his county was contacted by Union County Friday and asked whether they would be able to offer support as the county grappled with what was growing into a serious outbreak.
“We have put that offer out there, and we are willing and able to provide some support if they need us,” Fiumara said.
Union County hasn’t recorded any deaths from coronavirus so far, but McCauley and other residents are worried that will change. So far, at least five people have been hospitalized, officials have said.
Jeanne said if capacity becomes a concern at the local Grand Ronde Hospital, state officials will work to transfer patients to other hospitals in eastern Oregon, Portland or Boise.
The governor expressed support for Union County’s decision to move back to Phase 1 in a statement issued by her office.
“We support local officials in their decision to safeguard the public health of county residents,” said Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Brown.
Leaders from Lighthouse Pentecostal Church have not responded to various and repeated attempts at communication from The Oregonian/OregonLive. One faith leader declined to speak Tuesday.
The church’s Facebook page posted a video Tuesday morning, in which Pastor James Parker held a morning devotional prayer and seemed to address the COVID-19 pandemic, without acknowledging it by name.
“I appreciate everybody being cooperative with what was decided and doing your best to help,” Parker said in the video. “In the end, our fruit will show that what we’re doing is the right thing, and more people need to do what we did. The more people that do the right thing, the easier it’s going to be for the rest of the world to combat this pandemic that we’re going through.”
Parker did not further explain what “the right thing” is, and the church did not respond to a request for clarification.
A now-deleted Facebook post from late May explained the church was going to reopen its doors to congregants Memorial Day weekend “in accordance” with President Donald Trump’s demands that states allow churches to open.
A second Facebook post that has also been deleted showed hundreds of worshipers dancing, singing and moving around in close proximity in a video uploaded May 24.
The decision to open the church’s doors came amid statewide pressure from some faith leaders to resume services.
Ten churches sued the governor in early May, arguing that her social distancing guidelines were no longer justified. A Baker County Circuit Judge ruled in favor of the churches and stood by his decision on May 26, declaring Brown’s orders “null and void.” The Oregon Supreme Court ordered the judge to throw out his preliminary injunction June 12.
Boyle, the governor’s spokesman, said Brown hasn’t set out plans to cite churches that do not follow stay-home restrictions.
“Any enforcement decisions would be made at the local level,” Boyle said in an email. “However, at this time, our focus is on making sure that members of the community are getting access to the health care they need and that the county has the resources it needs to address this outbreak.”
McCauley said she hopes pastors who decided to hold services against Brown’s orders will be cited.
“Point to me in the Bible where Jesus said go out and infect everybody,” McCauley said.
Henry Larson, another Union County resident, said other churches and local groups followed the stay-home restrictions, and the decision to reopen Lighthouse Pentecostal Church was not broadly supported among local residents.
“As a fellow religious person, it shocks me to know that they would put their needs above the safety and wellbeing of the entire community,” Larson said.
— Celina Tebor