Legislators play it safe with COVID-19, but concerned about governor’s decisions

By Sean C. Morgan
Lebanon Local

The state legislature isn’t in session, but the legislators who represent the majority of the Sweet Home area are staying busy.
They’re collecting information, but they have had no involvement in decision-making at a time when they could be in session addressing issues related to the shutdown of large swaths of the economy and society in response to efforts to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
House Dist. 17 Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, who is running for the Republican nomination for county commissioner, is staying away from the Capitol.
“I am in my office at home,” she said. “It’s conference calls and phone calls all the time. It’s interesting. Many of the calls, communications, tend to be about information, getting information.
“You’d think it would be more problem-solving, constituents saying, ‘This happened. You need to fix it.’
“It’s more about helping constituents get informed. A lot of it is just reassuring people. It’s an unsettling time for all of us. One of the things that makes a little less uncomfortable when we’re unsettled is information.”
District 9 state Sen. Fred Girod has a schedule of briefings with state staff, the Republican caucus and weekly calls with federal partners, but he’s also communicating a lot with constituents.
“A lot of it is just answering the phones and emails,” he said. “A lot of people are just really upset.”
Much of Sprenger’s time is spent getting information, sorting through it and explaining it, she said. She is part of a daily briefing call from the governor and Oregon Health Authority to legislators. Sometimes other agency heads are part of the call, along with other people, like local community leaders, mayors and county commissioners.
The daily call is oriented toward decision-makers around the state who need the information, she said. Legislators are in that group.
Sprenger said she was surprised to find out there is “a maximum occupancy” on conference calls after hearing from constituents who have tried to get into public conference calls.
“I will say the governor’s office having daily calls with them can be helpful,” Sprenger said, but she is concerned whether legislators are getting enough information or input. “I was extremely disappointed and frustrated when I saw on the news that we gave 140 ventilators away (to New York).”
That occurred hours after a call with OHA, she said. She acknowledged she doesn’t know what Oregon will need, whether to send 140, 70 or some other number; but she said the governor should have checked with the legislature before giving away ventilators that just four or five days earlier she had said Oregon would need.
“It’s starting to feel like there’s not quite as much transparency, even for me,” Sprenger said. “This transparency piece, it’s starting to feel like there’s some political games being played.”
When this started, information would change within hours, she said, adding that she understands why: “We didn’t know (anything), and the information did change quickly. We would learn something new.
“We’ve been doing this now for over one month, and I’m not OK with it.”
It’s time for OHA and the governor to be forthright and give straight answers, Sprenger said. “To continue to stay in our homes is taking some trust of state government, and I want to make sure that the state government takes that seriously in that we need consistent transparency and straight answers.
“Sometimes I get answers I don’t like, but I’d rather get an answer I don’t like than no answer. There’s a fine line between state public health and safety, which is extremely important, and our liberty. There’s a balance that the governor’s office has to be very, very aware of.”
The COVID-19 response has highlighted another common theme in state politics: the divide between the big city and rural areas.
Sprenger pointed to the governor’s press conference on March 20, just ahead of the Stay at Home order.
“My thought, once again, was Portland thinks they run the whole dang state,” Sprenger said. The governor held the conference with two Portland-area leaders, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler and Multnomah County Chairwoman Deborah Kafoury.
“That was Portland trying to run the rest of the state. I was mad. It’s things like that that make it hard for us to trust that state government is being transparent and up front with information.”
The press conference, which some media outlets described as confusing, when Gov. Brown urged Oregonians to stay home without issuing an order to do so and balked at confirming whether an order was forthcoming. At the same time, Wheeler was calling for an order. Brown issued an order three days later.
Now, Oregon is managing COVID-19 the same way New York is, Girod said. “If Portland has a yearn to do something, that’s where we go. Portland is not geared for the virus as well as where we live. We have natural spacing.”
Rural Oregonians do not need to ride elevators together to go home, for example, he said.
Some 27 out of 36 Oregon counties have yet to have a COVID-19 death, Girod said, and he thinks the state could roll back some of the restrictions in those counties.
If they become a hot spot, restrictions could go back in place, Girod said. As a state, Oregon is diverse, and one-size-fits-all doesn’t fit everyone.
Sprenger said she received more questions after that press conference from constituents asking, “What does this mean?”
The owner of a restaurant in Sweet Home told her business “dropped like a rock” at that point because it was so confusing.
“That’s not fair to business owners,” Sprenger said. Further, public safety and health is No. 1, but “we can have public safety and public health and we can have an economy. I’m concerned about our economy. I’m concerned about our small businesses” – the salons, the restaurants and the bowling alleys, for example.
“We have been extremely busy dealing with the ramifications of what she (Gov. Brown) has done,” Girod said. New unemployment claims have shot up from around 4,000 per week to 100,000 as Oregon businesses close or cut hours without the state ramping up ahead of time to deal with the increase.
“They (workers) get upset, so they call their legislators. We try to do the best we can to help them.”
A lot of the problems have to do with the program, which somehow kicks some people out, he said. When it does happen, it’s hard to get through to the Employment Department on the phone, and “some people have been told that’s what they need to do to finalize their claims.”
That’s just one problem, Girod said, and then there’s the business end of it, “the number of busineses that are going to have to permanently close down.”
The longer the state stay under restrictions, the more businesses that will not survive, he said. “It’s going to be huge. It will be in the next biennium as well.”
“It’s time for the governor’s office to start talking about planning for how we reopen,” Sprenger said. “I’m not seeing that.
“I’m getting really frustrated. Why in the heck are we not in special session. It’s amazing the issues that have come up.”
The Corporate Activity Tax, which was projected to raise $2 billion and support education, is one of those.
Legislators might suspend that law in the face of the economic consequences of the COVID-19 response, but with the Democratic leadership, Sprenger said she would be shocked if that comes up in front of the legislature.
With the economic declines, the state will face funding issues, she said, and there are things the state needs to do to make it work. The Department of Education is figuring out what to do with students who are not in school, for example.
Girod said that more schools need to be moving online, and he said he respected how Sweet Home has been handling the change with its move to distance learning and online school.
“A lot of decisions need to be made,” Sprenger said. “Unelected bureaucrats are making them and not the legislators that people elected to represent them.”
“We have a lot of pretty angry Oregonians right now,” Girod said. “We’re just trying to do the best we can with the unemployment problem. (But) everything that’s been done has been done by executive order.”
The legislature hasn’t had anything to do with it, he said. That’s not to say legislators aren’t getting phone calls, “but we haven’t been able to contribute to that conversation.”
Sprenger said she’s not saying the decisions are good or bad, but the legislature needs to be in the “decision-making loop.”
“We need accurate numbers coming out of (the Department of) Revenue,” Girod said. “We need to know how much revenue we’re going to have. We’re not like the feds. We can’t go in the hole.”
Legislators need to know so they know what they’ll have to cut, he said. “It’s going to be some big numbers.”
Girod said he would make different choices in terms of restrictions. Early on, he would have limited the ability of Washingtonians to visit Oregon.
“Seattle was just a real hotbed of coronavirus to start with,” he said, and Oregon didn’t do anything to limit people coming from Washington, and that’s probably why Multnomah and Washington counties, followed by Marion County, have become the hot spots in Oregon.
Many restrictions have been extreme as well, he said. For example, people cannot put a boat in to go fishing.
“That’s just really silly,” said Girod, who is retired from a 26-year career as a practicing dentist. Some businesses, like salons, would be fine if workers and customers wore masks, he said.
Dentists can’t work, and as a retired dentist, he knows that it is hard for a young dentist to make up for two or three months of revenue.
Hospitals not dealing with COVID-19 are on the verge of bankruptcy at this point, he said, because they cannot do elective surgeries right now.
“There’s nothing to pay the bills,” Girod said, and they’re looking for $200 million from the state government to help them out.
“The restaurants are the ones I’m most worried about,” he said, adding that he would like to make things easier on them.
Oregon had 48 deaths, Girod said Friday. The average age was 78, and most were medically compromised.
A bad flu season would do the same thing, he said. “There comes a point where the numbers don’t justify what’s being done. I feel sorry for young people trying to pay a mortgage.”
Girod’s office has received calls from a couple of laid-off constituents who lost their ability to carry private insurance, said Lori Girod, Sen. Girod’s wife and assistant. For them, they won’t have coverage for ongoing medications or elective procedures that were placed on hold by the restrictions; and they won’t be able to get right back into the system.
There will be something where “waiting two months is going to be life and death,” Fred Girod said. He can relate to the possibility. He has had skin cancers, and he has a doctor look at him every six months. He cannot go in for his regular checkup at this time.
“Every phone call we take, we hear about another problem,” said Lori Girod.
Fred Girod asked how many lives will be lost to the poverty the response is creating now.
On March 22, 6 to 7 percent of emergency room visits were related to the coronavirus, he said. Now it’s down to 2 percent.
“It’s time to let some of the economy go,” Girod said. “It’s time to start with counties that are not having problems.”
Oregon is not a populous state, he said. “That’s good for us when it comes to the virus.”
The ones that have suffered most have been cities with international populations that go in and out of the cities, Seattle and Los Angeles on the west coast, Girod said. “We’re not new York, and we shouldn’t regulate like New York.”
He would like to see restrictions eased on relatively unaffected counties, he said. “When Portland starts quieting down, we can go in there and do the same thing.”
To restrict the whole state has been “a colossal mess” economically, Girod said, and it’s “irresponsible.”