UNION — Union County received encouraging news on the COVID-19 front.

Gov. Kate Brown on Tuesday, April 20, announced the latest county risk levels. Union County will move from the moderate to lower COVID-19 risk category effective Friday, April 23, because of declining infection rates.

The new risk list that goes into effect April 23 has no counties at extreme risk, 23 at high risk, three at moderate risk and 10 at lower risk. The lower risk category means fewer restrictions for businesses, offices, social gatherings and more.

Suzannah Moore-Hemann, director of the Union County Chamber of Commerce, is among those who greeted the news with enthusiasm.

“This is very exciting for our businesses,” Moore-Hemann said.

Moore-Hemann also said the news is encouraging because it means Union County’s public health situation is improving. She said lower infection rates mean there is less stress on Grande Ronde Hospital, La Grande, and other local health care facilities.

Union County Commissioner Donna Beverage said she is delighted because being in the the lower risk category will assist merchants.

“I’m super happy for businesses,” Beverage said, noting she hopes this will help merchants recover from some of the losses they suffered in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The county commissioner said she believes falling infection rates are due to people following social distancing rules and wearing masks.

“They are respectful of each other,” Beverage said.

Cody Guentert, the owner of Brother Bear Cafe, a business on Adams Avenue, La Grande, said one of the aspects of the lower risk level he welcomes is allowing up to eight people to sit at a table together indoors at restaurants. The current maximum is six people at a table and, he said, can create awkward situations.

He noted recently his family was celebrating a birthday in a local restaurant, but the party of eight had to sit at separate tables because of the six-person limit.

Guentert also said he likes how the lower risk limit category allows people from up to four households to gather in homes, double the current limit of two houses. He said this will make it easier for more than just families to be together. He feels good overall about the county’s switch to lower risk.

“I’m happy,” he said. “This is exciting.”

Arturo Escamilla, co-owner of Raul’s Taqueria, said being in the lower risk category will help his La Grande restaurant.

“I’m happy that we are moving forward,” Escamilla said.

Sue Memmott, the manager of Globe Furniture, La Grande, joined the chorus of cheer.

“It will put smiles on people’s faces. We are moving in the right direction,” Memmott said.

John Howard, the owner of John J. Howard and Associates Real Estate, said he believes the drop in infection rates is due in large part to the number of people who have been vaccinated in Union County. He said the development of COVID-19 vaccines is an enormous credit to the many people who took part in vaccine testing trials.

“They are the real heroes,” the La Grande business owner said.

Howard urged everyone to get a COVID-19 vaccine. He said he cannot understand why some people are reluctant, considering vaccinations have been successful in stopping the spread of dreaded diseases, including measles, polio and chicken pox.

While Union County joins Wallowa County and eight others in the lower risk group, COVID-19 infections are rising in Oregon, putting two-thirds of all counties into what, for now, is the highest possible level of restrictions.

The new county risk levels include nearly a dozen special waivers under Brown to keep counties from going into the most severe set of restrictions on activities, businesses and events.

Brown said the waivers are possible because of advances in vaccination numbers and a drop in severe cases of COVID-19, along with fewer deaths. But she said new variants that are able to morph inside infected bodies could prove a future challenge. Some of the variants have been shown to be more contagious and lethal than the version that appeared in the United States early last year.

Brown stressed vaccinations are the best way to protect yourself and others from the variants and the increased spread of COVID-19.

“Until you, your family, your friends, and your neighbors are fully vaccinated, it’s also critical that we all continue to wear masks, maintain physical distance, and stay home when sick,” the governor said.

The measure of new cases, cases per 100,000 people and positive test rate determine the risk levels. As the levels rise, so does the severity of limits on activities, events, dining and shopping.

But a mandate from Brown is keeping 11 counties from going into the extreme risk category even if the county level data suggests they should be. On April 6, she ordered that no county would be put in extreme risk if the statewide number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients remained under 300 and didn’t rise by more than 15% in a week.

With 25% of state residents immunized, including 75% of those 70 and older, the upswing in infections hasn’t always been followed by increases in hospitalizations and deaths.

The Oregon Health Authority reported April 20 that 270 people are hospitalized with COVID-19 in Oregon, below the threshold.

That means residents of the 11 counties don’t have to go all the way back to the harshest curbs of the pandemic — they top out at the rules associated with the high risk level. The counties are Baker, Clackamas, Columbia, Crook, Deschutes, Jackson, Josephine, Klamath, Linn, Marion and Polk.

Under an earlier plan adopted by Brown, counties that moved to a lower risk level only to boomerang back up were held at the lower level of restrictions and given two weeks to get their virus numbers back down.

Three Eastern Oregon counties were listed at risk levels lower than their numbers would suggest: Umatilla County will remain at moderate risk instead of moving to high risk. Grant County will stay at lower risk instead of high risk. Malheur County will stay at lower risk instead of moderate risk.

Brown’s cap only extends to the extreme level. Seven counties moved from either lower or moderate to high. All will have to follow the stricter guidelines that go with their new risk level status.

Amid the stampede of counties moving to higher risk levels, Curry County went from high to moderate, joining Union County with dropping infection numbers leading to a drop in restrictions.

The rising county numbers reflect statewide statistics. Oregon recorded 8,276 cases between April 4-17. The statewide measure of cases per 100,000 residents is 195.4 and the test positivity rate is 5.1%

For comparison, if Oregon were a county, it would be on the lip between high and extreme risk level ratings. For larger counties, 200 cases and above per 100,000 people is the trigger for an extreme level rating. The test positivity is just slightly above the highest rate the state has said will keep the infection rate flat.

The next risk level adjustment will be announced May 4 and take effect May 7.

Updates are posted to coronavirus.oregon.gov.

— Gary A. Warner with the Oregon Capital Bureau contributed to this report.

General assignment reporter

Beats include the communities of North Powder, Imbler, Island City and Union, education, Union County veterans programs and local history. Dick joined The Observer in 1983, first working as a sports and outdoors reporter.

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