In Portland and Statewide, Business Community Pushes Back Against Shelter in Place

Both the Portland Business Alliance and Oregon Business & Industry want clarity about which businesses are “essential.”

Leaders of Oregon's largest business groups are walking a fine line as they advocate for a strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic but also seek to help their constituent businesses stave off financial ruin.

Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler continues to work on a shelter in place order, like the one imposed earlier this week in the San Francisco Bay Area and across the entire state of California yesterday. Wheeler has been considering going it alone, as neither Gov. Kate Brown nor Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury support an order on a larger scale.

Business groups at both the city and state level have begun pressuring officials to not make such a move.

Andrew Hoan, CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, recognizes containing COVID-19 is crucial to restarting the economy.

"The top economic priority of the business community in our region is an effective public health response. The faster the virus is contained, the faster our economy can resume," Hoan said in a statement.

But PBA wants a coordinated effort—not a unilateral decision by Wheeler.

"A shelter in place order should be a state consideration first, then, should a regional order be necessary, it must be consistent with state definitions of essential businesses. More so, no one city should enact this policy. It should be coordinated to be effective and not done in isolation," Hoan added.

At the state level, Sandra McDonough, CEO of Oregon Business & Industry, testified by telephone March 18 before the Legislature's Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response that OBI had objections to the way Bay Area officials rolled out their shelter in place policy.

"We heard from several companies in the Bay Area that it wasn't coordinated among the different jurisdictions," McDonough told lawmakers. "Specifically,  who was affected and what's an essential business function and what isn't."

McDonough urged clarity if Oregon orders residents to shelter in place.

"We should define what an essential business function is," McDonough continued, "so we could avoid the confusion and lack of productivity we saw in the Bay Area."

On March 19, McDonough sought to help Brown develop such a definition, sending the governor a 1,274-word letter outlining what OBI sees as "essential business functions." (An OBI representative did not return a call seeking comment.)

The concerns of the business community are understandable: Business owners want to keep their employees working, and they have bills to pay: mortgages, rent, utilities, taxes and other obligations that won't go away if they are shut down.

At the same time, Brown, Wheeler and Kafoury have all adhered to the advice of public health officials and encouraged Oregonians to practice social distancing in order to slow the rate of infection and flatten the curve. In California, Gov. Gavin Newsom took that urgency to the highest level, ordering the state's 40 million residents to shelter in place, a step Oregon Health & Science University's chief medical officer and the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems support.

In a call with reporters this morning, Brown continued to say she's waiting to see if the social distancing policies she's enacted are sufficient, even as reporters pressed her to specify what criteria she would use to enact such an order.

Her spokesman, Charles Boyle, said the governor will be guided but what's best for the public.

"As Gov. Brown has stated previously, all options are on the table as the situation and level of COVID-19 spread warrants. If it becomes clear that Oregonians are not following those social distancing measures already in place, the governor will take further action," Boyle said in a statement.

"There will be further economic impacts to Oregon if a shelter in place order is put into effect, just as there have been real economic impacts on Oregon families and businesses already," Boyle continued. "Gov. Brown, through her administration and the Coronavirus Economic Advisory Council, is working to define which businesses would be designated as essential and non-essential if a shelter in place order becomes necessary, to minimize confusion as much as is possible. Ultimately, though, the decision to issue such an order would be based on whether or not it becomes necessary from a public health standpoint to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and save lives."