On the topic of COVID and its impact on our businesses

These are challenging times for many of us, but as Philomath’s mayor, I am particularly concerned about the health not only of our residents, but also of Philomath’s local businesses.

I am grateful that state leaders are trying their best to reduce the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths, but I wonder if there are opportunities to reduce the negative impacts to Oregon’s rural businesses.

In the last year, my family has made a concerted effort to support Philomath’s struggling businesses. Almost every time that I enter a restaurant in Philomath, I ask about how business is doing. Nobody is happy with the situation, but the most common response is akin to “we’re paying the bills.”

However, recently, a local restaurant owner expressed a stronger concern and questioned their ability to stay financially solvent. While this was not surprising, it pointed out a lack of locally available data and stories from our rural businesses, which are helpful to share with our regional, state, and national policy makers.

As mayor, I have been engaging our regional and state leaders on the topic. Each Friday, I participate in statewide calls with the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority. While city leaders from across the state are invited to the calls, many do not speak up. Yet each week, I speak up on behalf of Philomath, our businesses and rural Oregon in general.

Recently, I have raised certain discussion points with the governor’s office and the OHA team:

1. I have asked if the state had considered developing COVID guidelines for geographic regions that are smaller than individual counties. There are many rural communities (like Philomath) that seem to be impacted by the higher case count densities of cities that are located within their county.

2. I have inquired whether OHA was only encouraging COVID testing for people that are likely to test positive (those considered to be in a vulnerable population, with known exposures, are or experiencing potential COVID symptoms). They confirmed that these are the groups being encouraged to be tested. I am not a statistician, but I asked if the resulting rates are then biased and possibly an overestimate of infection rates (because they are sampling those that are most likely to be infected). As a scientist, I know that proper sampling protocols can be designed to properly represent the differences between rural areas and cities. The state’s drive-thru COVID testing in Philomath on Jan. 21 was a step in the right direction.

Along that line of thought, I hope everyone will get tested for COVID, as often as they have the opportunity. I believe that it is important for people to be tested, not because they think that they are at risk of infection, but because they want their infection status to be represented in the data.

3. I also inquired about having different guidelines for individual business based upon square footage and business type rather than only considering types of business. Should the recommended capacity for a large recreational facility be the same as a small gym? Would our businesses be better served by the state offering recommendations for how they can operate in a safe manner, based upon the best available science rather than overarching requirements that are applied without nuance?

On a personal level, my family is trying to support as many local businesses as possible and I encourage all of our residents to do the same. We also eagerly await the opportunity to be vaccinated, as soon as we are able. I will gladly accept the possibility of a sore arm and other mild side effects that are indicative that my body is responding to the virus and building my immunity to infection.

I should mention that this week, the federal government announced another round of COVID-19 related PPP funding available for small businesses (fewer than 20 staff) and child-care providers. The intention is to forgive these loans, so I encourage all of Philomath’s qualifying small businesses to talk to their bankers about the opportunity. The application window is only open for a total of 14 days.

As mayor, I am sharing our concerns and stories with regional, state, and national leaders, but to do so, I need to hear from more of our local business owners and residents. Please reach out via email ([email protected]) to tell me how things are going with your businesses.

Alternatively, let’s talk. Everyone is invited to my “Let’s Talk Philomath” virtual videoconferences on the first Tuesday of each month from 6 to 7 p.m. (the next one is March 2). You can join at: tinyurl.com/MayorJones.

In closing, I am supportive of the state’s efforts to keep us safe from the very real threats of COVID-19. Its impact has been devastating for so many families and my heart goes out to each and every one of you that have experienced COVID-related losses.

However, it is important that the state’s response to the COVID threat be based upon the best available science. Our leaders need to know how rural communities and businesses in Oregon are being impacted. They need to hear our stories.

(Chas Jones, Ph.D., was elected as mayor of Philomath for the 2021-22 term and is a trained scientist that works as the tribal liaison for the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians).

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