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Story By Kaia Hubbard, Contributor - Story Source
Published on Saturday February 13, 2021 - 6:10 AM
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PORTLAND, ORE.—OREGON Gov. Kate Brown allowed businesses in some counties to reopen for indoor dining at a limited capacity starting Friday, a step toward reopening her state's economy that follows similar moves from fellow Democratic governors in neighboring California and Washington.

"This week we will see 10 counties move out of Extreme Risk, including the Portland tri-county area, for the first time since November," Brown said in a statement Tuesday. "This is welcome news, as we'll start to see more businesses open up and Oregonians being able to get out a bit more."

[ READ: States With Mask Mandates ] The move toward reopening the state's businesses mirrors steps taken in recent weeks by Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who announced the state's "Healthy Washington" reopening plan with a regional approach effective Jan. 11, and California Gov. Gavin Newsom, who canceled the state's stay-at-home order on Jan. 25 and reopened some restaurants and businesses in the process, after all three states saw shutdowns heading into the winter. In Oregon, though Brown's statewide "freeze" ended in December, much of the state remained in the highest risk tier, maintaining many of the freeze's restrictions.

It's not the first time the governors have coordinated, however purposefully, on their coronavirus response. In April, the three leaders formed the Western States Pact, later joined by Nevada and Colorado, in a commitment to combat the looming crisis together, with science at the forefront. In November, the three governors issued a joint-travel advisory of a 14-day quarantine for all travelers to and from the West Coast. Again in December, when the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine received approval for emergency use authorization from the Food and Drug Administration, the governors brought experts together from their states to independently review and approve the vaccine for safety and efficacy.

But the three states, though neighboring and on similar pages when it comes to their COVID-19 responses, are very different, and the outcomes among the three West Coast states have differed as well.

California, the most populous state in the country, has seen 102,521 new cases of COVID-19 between Jan. 31 and Feb. 7, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, while Washington has seen 9,570 new cases during that period and Oregon 4,408. Even when weighing those numbers by cases per 100,000 individuals, California has more than double Washington's cases, and had over 150 more cases per 100,000 individuals than Oregon during the last week. Although cases are much higher than when the three states initially entered shutdowns in March, and slightly lower than when the states initiated their late 2020 restrictions, all three states saw a 10-30% decrease in new cases Feb. 7 compared to the prior week.

[ READ: States' Progress on Administering the COVID-19 Vaccines ] Brown, along with Inslee and Newsom, has initiated some of the most restrictive measures among state leaders throughout the coronavirus pandemic, spurring pushback from individuals throughout her state and from Republican leaders. But in the last month, even members of Washington and California's Democratic parties have spoken out against their respective governors.

Following Inslee's reopening announcement, a Republican bill co-sponsored by Democratic state Sens. Mark Mullet and Tim Sheldon was introduced in the Legislature to drive the reopening of businesses and shift control of reopening plans from Inslee to state lawmakers. Three Democratic state representatives also released a joint statement in January, citing their support for Inslee's policies throughout the pandemic but saying that "with these latest moves, however, we have lost faith that the governor is on a course to safely open Washington and beat COVID-19. He is reopening hot-spot counties based on poorly designed metrics that leave low-rate counties closed. This plan's senseless punishment of counties with low COVID-19 rates leaves us no choice but to speak out in opposition."

In California, though Newsom has seen consistent criticism from the state's GOP, some voices in his own party have become louder in their disapproval of his virus response. Democratic Assemblymember Laura Friedman tweeted about the surprise and confusion among state lawmakers following Newsom's canceled state stay-at-home order but later clarified that she backs the governor and does not support a recall, a petition in California seeking signatories to allow for a vote on the governor's removal. President Joe Biden sided with Newsom, opposing the recall potential, according to a tweet from White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday.

[ READ: Newsom's Fine Dining Irks Californians ] The recent pushback in these states comes in stark contrast to the early days of the pandemic, as residents moved indoors and adorned masks for the first time, and Inslee and Newsom both earned plaudits for their virus response. The praise followed national recognition of the two leaders in recent years, with Inslee making a presidential run in 2020, and Newsom poised for a future in national politics. But both have seen dwindling support, with Newsom's approval rating falling to 46% in January, down from 64% in September, according to recent Berkeley IGS Polls.

And Brown's name was not mentioned as readily on the national scene as her counterparts before the pandemic, ranking among the least-popular governors in 2019. In Oregon, too, her approval ratings before the pandemic have been mediocre to low. But recently, Oregonians seem to be hopeful about Brown and the state's leadership, with Brown's approval rating increasing to 46% in January from 37% in 2019.

Still, she has hardly been praised for her response to the virus, as critics cited indecisiveness or mixed messaging. Throughout Oregon, some businesses have pushed back against the restrictions by defying them outright, with support from some local political leaders.

Mayor Stan Pulliam of Sandy, Oregon, wrote an open letter to Brown in December, calling her rules arbitrary, and declaring, "Governor Brown, we are opening." Pulliam detailed plans for a coordinated effort to reopen businesses in the state on Jan. 1, with the help of other local leaders.

Some restaurants did defy Brown's orders on Jan. 1, and a right-wing group protested coronavirus restrictions at the state capitol in Salem that day, eventually marching to the governor's home to protest, while others used guns to defend restaurants that went against Brown's orders.

[ MAP: The Spread of the Coronavirus ] Brown defended her virus response in her Jan. 21 State of the State address, likening her response and the responsibility of Oregonians to a marathon, not a sprint. Citing her school closures and stay-at-home order in March, "some folks said it was too rash; others said it was too late," Brown explained. When Brown began to reopen the state in May, she said, "some said it was too cautious; others said it was too risky." And in the fall as the country and state faced a second wave of the virus, "many still said that my orders were too restrictive, that the virus isn't dangerous, or that it's a hoax. All the while, cases were rising, and deaths continued to mount," Brown said.

"The truth is, those commenting on the far ends of this debate were missing the point," she said, extending the marathon metaphor: "In a short race, like the 100-meter dash, you run as hard as you can for a short period of time. In a marathon, you have to play the long game."

The public response after Brown's most recent announcement of partial reopenings for businesses appears to be mixed. According to a statement from Jason Brandt, president of the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association, with Brown's latest announcement, small business owners face the challenge of operating two weeks at a time, while waiting for updates from the state government. The repeated opening and closing of restaurants, in particular, is the greatest challenge to the industry, the association said.

Still, Brandt speaks hopefully about Oregon's progress, calling Brown's announcement "a significant step in the right direction."