The Oregon Capitol building in Salem. Photo: Chas Hundley

Oregon lawmakers will meet in a special session in Salem Monday, Dec. 21 to vote on — among a handful of other bills — an $800 million relief package to help Oregonians who continue experiencing financial distress since the outbreak of COVID-19 and the wildfires last summer.

The in-person session has many elected officials concerned about the possibility of themselves or their colleagues contracting or unknowingly spreading COVID-19 while inside the state capitol.

Some state officials have said Governor Kate Brown should have employed a state constitutional provision that allows her to declare a “catastrophic disaster” so the legislature could meet online rather than risk meeting in person when the state itself considers all of Marion County an “extreme risk” area for the transmission of COVID-19.

Outgoing House District 32 Rep. Tiffany Mitchell (D-Astoria), whose final vote cast will be in favor of the $800 million relief package, said there are many members in both legislative chambers who fall into the “high-risk” category for developing severe complications from COVID-19, and she worries and the in-person session puts lawmakers at risk. 

Gov. Brown’s office said it will enact safety protocols to keep lawmakers distanced on Dec. 21, as was the case with the previous two special sessions in 2020 since the outbreak of the virus. 

“That said, I’m grateful we’re having the session, period, because of the urgency of the matters we’ll be discussing,” Mitchell said. 

The primary focus of the relief package is another six-month extension on eviction moratoriums and the creation of a fund that would provide landlords the ability to recover 80 percent of back rent owed by tenants as long as they forgive their tenants’ debt. 

Tenants will be required to sign a sworn statement saying they have experienced financial distress since the original COVID-19 lockdown last spring and/or due to the wildfires last summer. Observers say state funding would not be enough to cover all landlords, but that it would stop a mass wave of evictions beginning January 1, 2021. 

The funding will come from an initial $150 million General Fund appropriation with the hope of future federal and state allocations. Smaller landlords and landlords with a higher percentage of unpaid rent are to be prioritized for financial relief, Mitchell said. 

Many Democratic leaders are wary of passing an $800 million spending package without having time to read it through and debate the details, especially the unintended consequences. Meanwhile, many small- to medium-sized business owners, especially restaurant owners, collectively are desperate for immediate substantial financial relief to stay open. 

“The eviction moratorium and establishing a fund to help struggling landlords is essential, in my opinion,” Rep. Mitchell said. “Also, while I know it’s not necessarily a popular opinion among some, (there is a) restaurant package (in the relief bill), which includes cocktails to go, which will be huge for many of the restaurants throughout the district who are struggling.”

Oregon's restaurant industry is seeing revenue losses between 40-70 percent due to temporary closures, reduced seating, and increased costs to maintain COVID-19 protocols, Mitchell said. 

An Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association (ORLA) survey finds industry sales fell 30 percent on average from Dec. 2019 to Dec. 2020 with 80 percent of restaurant owners saying they experienced losses in October.

Another 39 percent of Oregon restaurant operators said they do not believe they will be in business six months from now (June 2021), and 88 percent said their current staffing level is lower than normal since the outbreak of COVID-19.

The Cocktails-to-go provision proposed in the relief package directs the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to create rules applicable to on-premises sales permits. Containers would be required to be tamper-resistant and sealed, sales would be limited to two containers per customer, and ordering cocktails to go also would require “a substantive food purchase” per order.