Why Gov. Kate Brown Gave Mayor Ted Wheeler What He Wanted: A Coronavirus Lockdown

She’d spent most of March trying to battle COVID-19 without shutting down large sectors of the state’s economy.

(Aaron Wessling)

The residents of Tillamook, Ore., woke on Saturday to find Portlanders had emptied the shelves of their local grocery store.

Vacationers, seeking a spring break from urban dread surrounding the COVID-19 coronavirus, had flocked to the Oregon Coast. Many were at the Tillamook Fred Meyer when it opened at 7 am, grabbing weekend provisions that were supposed to feed a town of 5,311.

Their actions made a mockery of Gov. Kate Brown's efforts to contain the novel coronavirus "the Oregon way," which meant also protecting rural areas.

She'd spent most of March trying to battle COVID-19 without shutting down large sectors of the state's economy.

For four days last week, Brown resisted pressure from Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler, who wanted her to order all Oregonians to remain in their homes. After she made a confusing, toothless plea Friday night, Oregonians fled to the beach.
Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber complained to Brown in a March 21 conference call about the plague of city dwellers invading—and possibly infecting—her town.

Brown's failure to act decisively led to that moment.

On March 23, Brown finally issued an order to Oregonians to stay in their homes.
"I know that most Oregonians are being respectful and compassionate toward others," Brown tells WW. "My goal was to protect Oregonians across the state. I have asked, I have directed, and now I'm ordering folks to comply."

Her action came after a remarkable effort by Wheeler, according to a half-dozen political insiders. Often bereft of allies during his political career, the mayor mobilized a powerful coalition of health officials, fellow elected leaders and, judging from social media, the public.

Wheeler says he felt he had to act, even though the state and county are in charge of emergency response. "I have a healthy respect for incident command structure," he says. "In public health emergencies, the state and county have the formal leadership but as mayor I also had an obligation to act and to be responsible for the people of Portland."

"The urgency was based on what I saw in Asia and Italy," Wheeler adds. He says one particular video stays with him: "Ten days ago, there was an Italian woman lying in a hospital bed, struggling to breathe and imploring the world to take action before it's too late."

It marked a high point of Wheeler's tenure as mayor, during which he has sometimes appeared isolated and fallen short at big moments. This time, he was decisive, won over allies and forced the governor's hand.

Brown, by contrast, has dithered, failing to swiftly order Oregonians to stay home. She took action only after pressure.

Brown's and Wheeler's political careers have long been intertwined, but never more so than since the coronavirus erupted.

A little more than five years ago, when Wheeler served as state treasurer and Brown as secretary of state, the two Democrats were the leading contenders to succeed Gov. John Kitzhaber.

But Kitzhaber's resignation in 2015 allowed Brown to replace him per the Oregon Constitution and left Wheeler with a consolation prize—City Hall—that he's borne uneasily.

Their jobs are different: Wheeler has 650,000 constituents covering only a portion of a county that is the state's smallest in area. Brown is responsible for 4.2 million Oregonians and faces a disastrous financial picture as income taxes and lottery receipts evaporate. The city, by contrast, depends on more stable property taxes.

But the coronavirus has forced the pair—whose relationship was never strong—into an uneasy partnership. Wheeler says he and Brown spoke repeatedly in the past week, calling their communication "challenging but constructive."

For much of this month, the death toll from COVID-19 skyrocketed in Iran and Italy, and experts warned the U.S. could be next. Brown acted in half-measures, leaving Oregon medical experts bewildered by her lack of urgency. And now that she's finally issued a statewide order, it appears the real impetus came from Wheeler.

Len Bergstein, a longtime City Hall lobbyist, says Wheeler has risen to the crisis. "His first term hasn't been a showcase of leadership," Bergstein says. "But in these times, his personality seems to fit. He's focused, clear and calm, and he's got a narrower set of interests to balance than the governor does. It is a defining moment for him—his finest moment."

Governor Kate Brown held a press conference in Portland, OR to give an update on the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon. (SIPA USA/ Justin Katigbak

On March 18, WW reported Wheeler had drafted a shelter in place order based on one in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Brown and Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury initially expressed little interest in expanding the boundaries of that order. The Portland Business Alliance objected to a city order altogether.

"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," Andrew Hoan, the group's CEO said. "More so, no one city should enact this policy. It should be coordinated to be effective and not done in isolation."

"Businesses were understandably concerned about how a stay at home order would affect them," says Wheeler spokeswoman Eileen Park. "We heard from a variety of voices that all manufacturing should be exempt, which we weren't prepared to do for public health reasons."

Observers in City Hall say Wheeler took up the issue with unusual zeal.
"He's a trained emergency responder. He's done mountain rescue," says one veteran City Hall staffer. "Frankly, I was very impressed. The way he rallied the hospital association and [Oregon Health & Science University], that was some skillful work."

While Wheeler plowed ahead, issues at the state level bogged down over a basic but complex question: What constituted "essential" businesses?

Sandra McDonough, CEO of Oregon Business & Industry, represented the interests of 1,600 companies in conversations with Brown. A top priority: keeping Oregon's manufacturers working.

McDonough gives an example: Toilet paper has become a consumer focus recently. Georgia-Pacific makes it in Clatskanie. Oregon trees cut by loggers feed mills that make the white rolls. Truckers distribute it to warehouses, where workers break large loads into individual loads that are then shipped to retailers.

"Because of that whole supply chain, when you go to Fred Meyer, there's toilet paper on the shelf," McDonough says.

For much of the past week, McDonough made a list of essential business functions that should be allowed to continue if Oregon decided to follow California, Ohio, Illinois and New York with a statewide order.

"There are industries where people can't work remotely, like manufacturing, construction and ag, but they can practice social distancing," McDonough says.

"To the extent we can keep people working in those industries, it's really important. I've talked to the governor many times about that."

Friday, March 20, was a pivotal day. Brown's team decided to seek a policy with greater clarity—identify companies that were not essential and should therefore close rather than say which could stay open.

"After watching the mass confusion that happened with orders in other parts of the country, we tried to learn from that and take a different approach," says Brown's chief of staff, Nik Blosser.

Meanwhile, Wheeler continued to rally support. On Friday, he had Prosper Portland, the city's economic development agency, lead a large conference call of Portland businesses and politicos. "There was no bickering," says one person who was on the call. "It was positive and action-oriented."

At 3:30 pm, Brown, Wheeler and Kafoury and their staffs joined a conference call to plan for a joint appearance at 7 pm. People on the call say the goal was to present a unified message on the eve of spring break.

But the press conference went awry. Brown declined to issue a statewide order, and Wheeler was left saying Portland might have to act alone. One high-level staffer called the disjointed event "the low point of my professional career."

The next day, as spring breakers flocked to the coast, Brown hopped on a call with 200 elected officials from all over the state. She heard from the mayor of Ontario, who wanted cannabis shops shut down (too many visitors from Idaho), and the mayor of Hermiston, who wanted to make sure truckers could get farm products to market.

Wheeler watched news of the spring breakers with alarm. "That underscored the need for a statewide order," he says.

Late Saturday morning, Wheeler jumped on a phone call with 25 metro-area mayors convened by Gresham Mayor Shane Bemis. The mayors supported tougher measures than Brown was willing to impose.

After the call, the mayors sent a letter urging Brown to issue a statewide order, joining medical groups and the Metro Council.

On Monday morning at 10:42, Brown finally took action.

Bemis, the Gresham mayor, wishes Brown had acted faster. "It's a tall order to craft policy for the whole state," he says, "but that's her job."

Brown rejects criticism she moved too slowly. "We're working to develop a good public policy as quickly as we can with the best information we have," she says.

Blosser notes Oregon was among the first states to impose strong visiting restrictions on senior and group homes and the third to close schools statewide. Brown also issued prior orders on social distancing.

When she finally issued a stay at home order, the Oregon Association of Hospitals and Health Systems wanted something like the forceful message Gov. Andrew Cuomo issued in New York.

"The governor's order is necessary and important," said association president and CEO Becky Hultberg. "Without strong public compliance with this order, we remain concerned that stronger action may be necessary."

Wheeler is also withholding judgment.

"We want to see whether the order is working," he says. "We'll continue to talk to health officials and others, and if we find we need to strengthen the order, we reserve the right to do that."
Rachel Monahan contributed reporting to this story.

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