Counties on the Oregon coast have begun planning – and in some cases taking — small steps toward reopening vacation rentals, hotels and RV parks amid the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, for instance, Coos County lifted its ban on short-term vacation rentals, though officials asked operators not to promote tourism or encourage visitors for now.
Gov. Kate Brown has talked about “Phase 1” of reopening Oregon businesses. Think of this as “Phase .25,” said Coos County Chair Melissa Cribbins.
“We see this as a baby step toward reopening,” she said.
Cribbins estimates the county is home to about 100 short-term rentals.
In neighboring Curry County, commissioners discussed lifting their ban on short-term lodging as early as Friday but then postponed the vote until next week after pushback from residents worried about public health.
Lincoln County commissioners and eight cities and towns in the county agreed last week to extend their ordinances restricting hotels and other short-term lodging establishments until the end of May, said board Chair Kaety Jacobson.
She said the county’s ban has exceptions for essential workers and others, such as people who live in hotels. She said the county also has made exceptions for people in need of emergency lodging.
After hordes of spring break visitors descended on the coast in March, many communities enacted ordinances that severely limited hotels, motels and other forms of lodging hoping to discourage visitors who, they thought, could spread the virus and overwhelm their hospitals.
The coastal bans in general did not shut down lodging but instead restricted their operation to certain situations, like essential workers, people staying more than 30 days and victims of domestic violence.
But now with the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in coastal communities remaining low, county leaders are tiptoeing their way toward kickstarting their battered economies.
Jason Brandt, president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, said parts of the state with few known cases should be allowed to open “in a responsible way.”
“Based on the data and the cases I do think there is a path forward,” he said, “but we have to be careful to make sure people understand that this is not the time to be promoting leisure travel.”
It’s hard to know what practical effect reopening will have since many people are still staying home and many destinations remain closed.
“The beaches are closed,” Cribbins said. “The dunes are closed. The parks are closed and the restaurants are closed.”
“It’s a terrible time to go on vacation,” she said.
Curry County has had four confirmed COVID-19 cases; none required hospitalization in the county’s 16-bed medical center, local officials said.
In Coos County, all of the confirmed cases are tied to an outbreak at Shutter Creek Correctional Institution, a state prison where 19 inmates and two employees have tested positive for the virus.
Officials on the coast have sounded desperate when they talk about the need to reopen.
In an April 22 board meeting, Curry County Chair Chris Paasch said his county faces economic devastation. He predicted the county would “lose a good percentage of our businesses.”
He added that he worries in particular about how rural communities are being treated by the state and federal government as they respond to the crisis.
“I am afraid rural Oregon, rural counties in this nation are being forgotten,” he said as he encouraged state lawmakers to seek help from President Trump.
“I know our president has made many statements that if you need something, you contact his people and he will make sure we get it,” he said.
The meeting itself reflected the rift simmering across the state and the country over how to proceed amid the new world order.
For one, it was held in person at in a meeting room in the courthouse annex. About a dozen people were present, including three county commissioners, the county attorney, government administrators and the sheriff.
As for masks, some people wore them. Others did not.
Gov. Kate Brown has urged Oregonians to wear masks in public, saying they may not keep someone from contracting the virus but instead prevent others from getting sick.
Gold Beach city manager Jodi Fritts was among those who wore one at the session. At one point, she declined the commission chair’s request to join another speaker at the podium to answer a question, worried she would breach social distance recommendations.
When Curry County Sheriff John Ward stood to address the commissioners, he didn’t wear a mask.
Ward pressed commissioners to lift the ban on short-term lodging in unincorporated areas of the county as early as possible, pointing to the county’s low rate of infection and the damage done to the local economy.
“I think there is a time when you have to reopen because the cure is worse than the virus,” he said.
In an interview this week, the sheriff said he doesn’t wear a mask in public and neither do his deputies. “We supply them,” he said. “Nobody wears them in my office.”
He speculated that some people are in no hurry to open the county because they’re now collecting federal unemployment benefits.
“They are getting paid more to do nothing,” he said.
But Fritts said she opposes reopening short-term lodging because her coastal town of about 2,200 isn’t ready for visitors.
She said Gold Beach has its own temporary ban on short-term lodging and plans to keep it for now.
She brought with her photographs of bare shelves at a local market and said she’s worried that an influx of outsiders would make it hard for locals to buy the goods they need.
“I would rather be ridiculed when this is over for overreacting than have to reconcile the fact that a decision I made led to the death of someone,” she said. “I couldn’t live with that.”
Meanwhile, just outside of Gold Beach, Kyle Ringer is anxiously awaiting word on when he can launch his season.
Ringer owns Tu Tu’ Tun Lodge, a resort on the Rogue River that draws an international clientele. He said he makes most of his money during a four- to five-month window that begins Memorial Day weekend.
He compared the business to a hibernating bear.
“We live off those fat reserves to get us through the winter,” he said.
But he said he also understands public health concerns around reopening.
“There are a lot of people in our area who are averse to the risk. Some aren’t and some are. It’s a very difficult thing.
“From a business standpoint, I need to open,” he said. “From a citizen standpoint, I understand where people are coming from.”
— Noelle Crombie; firstname.lastname@example.org; 503-276-7184; @noellecrombie
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