File photo: Chas Hundley

Washington County could be headed for another indoor dining ban.

Chair of the Washington County Board of Commissioners Kathryn Harrington said during a work session held Tuesday that she would push for a four-week closure of indoor dining at Washington County restaurants. The board is scheduled to meet next Tuesday evening, August 24. The agenda for the meeting does not have such a measure listed on the agenda's action items as of early afternoon on Wednesday.

The board could call a special meeting prior to that, but Washington County spokesperson Philip Bransford said that a decision to call such a special meeting had not been made during a phone call with this publication Wednesday morning. 

Harrington said during the work session that she spoke with and listened to a number of doctors and medical professionals on the strain faced by Oregon hospitals as the Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19 sends case numbers and hospitalizations upward. 

According to the Oregon Health Authority, there were 838 hospitalized patients with COVID-19 across the state on Tuesday, an increase of 86 from the previous day. There were 222 COVID-19 patients in intensive care units (ICU) beds in Oregon, 16 more than the previous day. 

Harrington said she talked on Tuesday morning to Dr. Peter Graven, an assistant professor at the School of Public Health, a joint venture between the Oregon Health & Science University and Portland State University about his modeling on the Delta variant of the virus that causes COVID-19. 

Graven, Harrington said, describes himself as a public health economist. Out of that conversation, Harrington said, came some grim messages, and noted that Oregon’s hospital system is being overwhelmed by the spread of the Delta variant.

“I clearly now understand that we cannot stop this peak, but what we can do is reduce deaths,” Harrington said. Harrington said Graven strongly believed mask-wearing could reduce the spread of the coronavirus, but she was unsure how the county could convince unmasked people to adopt mask-wearing. Graven, Harrington noted, said another tool—used in the past by the state—could help.

“He was very clear with me that evidence shows that outdoor-only dining works. That it is the quickest way and a way that has worked every time we’ve instituted it with all of our prior surges, that it works, we’ve done it, and it’s reduced the number of cases within two weeks,” Harrington said. 

“It’s too late to help stave off a surge, we’re in a surge, but he said if we put such a measure in place for four weeks, it will buy time for hospitals to catch up,” Harrington said. 

Other measures would help as well, Harrington said, urging people to wear masks and to follow public health recommendations.

“Stop associating and hanging out with unvaccinated people, please, and please get vaccinated,” Harrington urged.

“What I do want us to do is strive to reduce the pressures on health care workers and hospitals,” she said. “As far as I know, policy-wise, the only thing we can do to help that is to restrict dining to outdoor-only for the next four weeks. Pure and simple,” Harrington said, and implied that the issue could come up either at the board’s next meeting on August 24 unless a special meeting was called before that. Harrington also noted that many of these conversations had been conducted with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. 

At the meeting, Harrington appeared to have the support of the majority of the five-member Washington County Board of Commissioners for an indoor dining ban. 

Opposed to the idea was District 4 Commissioner Jerry Willey. Willey represents the western half of Washington County, including the cities of Banks, North Plains, Forest Grove, Hillsboro, Cornelius and Gaston, as well as numerous unincorporated communities such as Gales Creek, Verboort, and Timber.

“I cannot support that,” Willley said of restricting indoor dining. “The restaurant industry has been one of the hardest hit industries, and they’re holding on by their fingernails right now.”

Willey said that the current mask mandate could be strengthened by giving restaurants the ability to restrict indoor dining to those who are vaccinated. 

“I realize that’s a burden on them, but it’s not nearly the burden on them [as] restricting them, because a pretty good number, especially our smaller restaurants, don't have the ability to go outside.”

District 3 Commissioner Roy Rogers didn’t appear opposed to the concept of an indoor dining ban, but questioned if the timing on such a measure was right.

District 2 Commissioner Pam Treece expressed support for an indoor dining ban, as did District 1 Commissioner Nafisa Fai. 

In an email to this publication, Banks Mayor Stephanie Jones said the push was a surprise to her, and likely to the other mayors present at the meeting. “Once multiple mayors stated their support for any county decisions, Chair Harrington said her plan is to shut down indoor dining in Washington County for 4 weeks,” Jones said, noting she believes that a vote on the matter will be held August 24 by the county commissioners. “As most of the conversation before her comment was on mask wearing and vaccination promotion, this was definitely a blindside to myself and I would guess most of the other mayors,” Jones said. 

Jones is opposed to an indoor dining ban.

“Our small businesses have suffered enough. We need people to mask up and vaccinate. This Delta variant surge is a burden shared by everyone in the state. Especially if we want our kids to be back in school. 19% of current covid cases in Washington County are kids aged 0-19,” Jones said. 

The mayors of Forest Grove and North Plains did not immediately respond to an emailed request for comment Wednesday afternoon. 

Some of the other requirements discussed during the meeting would be to require that county employees become vaccinated, and to step up enforcement of the state’s mask mandate at indoor public spaces, especially at businesses flagrantly violating the mask mandate. 

The full meeting can be viewed online on the county’s Youtube channel