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In the Center of Eastern Oregon’s COVID-19 Outbreak, One Resident Sees Public Trust Breaking Down

Peter Walters says residents of Pendleton think the outbreak is more of a Hermiston thing.

WW presents "Distant Voices," a daily video interview for the era of social distancing. Our reporters are asking Portlanders what they're doing during quarantine.

No place in Oregon is getting hit by the COVID-19 virus as hard as Umatilla County. On July 30, Gov. Kate Brown ordered residents of the northeastern Oregon county back into lockdown. That includes its two biggest towns, Hermiston and Pendleton.

What is life like in the first place in Oregon to be sent back home? We asked Peter Walters, a lifelong resident known as the "unofficial mayor of Pendleton" because he's so ubiquitous on the town's music scene.

Walters says residents of Pendleton think the outbreak is more of a Hermiston thing.

"That's a long-standing Pendleton tradition, to blame things on Hermiston," he says. "People will say, 'Ah, it's just the meatpacking places, it's just the agriculture places in Hermiston.' I don't think that's as true as people think."

Walters, 35, co-founder of the Pendleton-based (and now virtual) Rock 'n' Roll Camp for Teens, says the pandemic has widened all kinds of political fractures in Umatilla County.

In this interview with WW News Editor Aaron Mesh, he describes maskless octogenarians in the Walmart parking lot, gathering signatures to recall Gov. Brown. (He has a feeling that won't end well.) But he says such partisan backlash is just one symptom of a deeper distrust growing amid neighbors in his city.