As coronavirus infections soar across Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown indicated Friday that she intends to take a much harder line to enforce her new “freeze” order that limits the size of social gatherings to no more than six people.
The governor warned that violations are misdemeanors punishable by citation or arrest, and Brown said she would work with state police and local law enforcement to encourage Oregonians to comply with her directive.
“For the last eight months I have been asking Oregonians to follow the letter and the spirit of the law and we have not chosen to engage law enforcement,” Brown said Friday. “At this point in time, unfortunately, we have no other option.”
The governor’s office cited emergency authority granted to her by Oregon law. Violators could face up to 30 days in jail, a fine of up to $1,250, or both.
That’s the same set of penalties the governor’s office described for her “stay home” order at the pandemic’s outset last March. Authorities said at the time that they intended to inform people about the laws rather issue punishments, and it’s not clear those penalties were ever applied.
The notion of citing or arresting people at their homes will become another flashpoint in the ongoing culture wars over how to limit the spread of the deadly disease. The governor’s freeze comes just ahead of Thanksgiving, as the state and nation are at a difficult moment with a presidential transition underway and infection rates soaring in Oregon and across the country.
“The Oregon State Police will be working with local law enforcement to enforce the Governor’s orders, in the same way local law enforcement officers respond to noise complaints for loud parties, for example, and issue citations,” Brown spokesman Charles Boyle said in an email Saturday. The state police said it wouldn’t have details on its enforcement plans before Monday.
The state is producing roughly 1,100 new COVID-19 infections a day, triple the number just three weeks ago. And the rate of positive coronavirus tests has soared from around 5% for several weeks in the summer to more than 13%.
Hospitalizations have soared, too, from around 120 in late October to 308 now. Medical facilities say their urgent care beds are nearly full, and some are postponing elective procedures to make room for a continued spike in cases. Health authorities say 759 Oregonians with COVID-19 have died since March, including 48 so far this month.
The governor’s two-week freeze order allows retailers and the vast majority of businesses to continue operating, but it does shutter gyms and dine-in service at restaurants and bars.
The order also restricts gatherings to six people from no more than two households. In Multnomah County, where infections are especially severe, Brown said the freeze would last for at least four weeks.
Health authorities attribute the state’s soaring infection rates to reckless social gatherings, including an unspecified Halloween party that allegedly attracted 100 people last month. That kind of thing must stop, Brown said Friday, but she urged Oregonians to curtail the size of any social gathering – including family celebrations at Thanksgiving.
The governor said she would limit her own Thanksgiving to just four people – Brown’s husband, his daughter and her fiancé.
“I know it doesn’t look like the Thanksgiving holiday we’ve all been planning for weeks, and I know it’s really, really hard,” Brown said, “but unfortunately it’s a necessity right now.”
While most of the freeze doesn’t take effect until Wednesday, the governor said the limits on social gatherings applied immediately.
“I will take a stronger legal action as appropriate,” Brown said. “I’ve already directed the superintendent of state police to begin to work with local law enforcement to legally enforce the informal social gathering orders.”
Oregon Republicans were immediately critical of the governor’s freeze on Friday, critiquing restrictions some said were unconstitutional and others said were inconsistently applied. Some reacted with particular outrage to restrictions on social gatherings.
Incoming Clackamas County Chairwoman Tootie Smith wrote on Facebook that she planned to deliberately violate the governor’s restrictions, saying she “will celebrate Thanksgiving with as many family and friends as I can find. Gov. Brown is WRONG to order otherwise.”
And Sen. Brian Boquist, R- Dallas, wrote to the Oregon State Police complaining that the governor’s order “appeared to have created new laws,” and said enforcement of the freeze amounted to “extrajudicial armed raids against private citizens.”
There is no indication Oregon plans any such raids, though, and other states appear to have enforced orders similar to Brown’s without any of the melodrama Boquist envisioned.
In one famous example from September, police cited six students at a university in Ohio upon finding them hosting a large party without masks – even though one of the six had recently tested positive for the coronavirus. Those students each faced $500 fines.
“Oregon’s hospitals are being stretched to capacity,” Brown’s office said Saturday. “We urge Oregonians to think of the true cost of indoor social gatherings, as parties and other such gatherings accelerate the spread of COVID-19.”
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