The Governor Canceled Thanksgiving. Why Not Black Friday?

Per Gov. Kate Brown’s executive orders, in-person retail can remain open during her two-to-four-week “freeze.”

Large Thanksgiving celebrations are canceled in Oregon. But in-person shopping on Black Friday, the busiest retail day of the year, will carry on virtually unabated in one of the few states with no sales tax.

Gov. Kate Brown invoked her emergency authority Nov. 13 to threaten criminal sanctions against those who gather in groups larger than six in private homes between Nov. 18 and Dec. 2, effectively prohibiting Thanksgiving Day gatherings statewide.

That's a measure that health experts say can save lives and free up increasingly scarce hospital beds. It's the next day, however, that may be cause for concern.

Per Brown's executive orders, in-person retail can remain open during her two-to-four-week "freeze."

The one caveat is that retailers must limit in-store capacity to 75% in an effort to increase social distancing and, ultimately, mitigate the spread of the coronavirus.

An expert on indoor air quality is skeptical whether that's enough.

"We are in an infection inferno that will only grow for the next six weeks or more," says Richard Corsi, dean of the College of Engineering and Computer Science at Portland State University. "Bringing people together during Black Friday or any other time is just pouring fuel on the fire."

Oregon business groups, ravaged by the pandemic, lobbied hard for the governor to limit restrictions before her Nov. 13 announcement. They were partly successful: The governor arrived at the 75% store capacity after communicating with Oregon Business & Industry.

"We appreciate that Gov. Brown worked with us on the retail capacity issue before she announced the restrictions," says Nathaniel Brown, a spokesman for OBI. "While capacity limitations have been a challenge, especially for our small businesses with small spaces, we're hearing from our members that the 75% limitation is probably workable this season."

Liz Merah, a spokeswoman for the governor, says the state looked at "a variety of capacity limits for indoor and outdoor retail" ranging from 25% to 75%. "After receiving feedback from stakeholders and health experts," Merah says, "we opted for a single retail capacity limit of 75% with health and safety protocols in place for all retail, so that a uniform standard could be implemented and enforced."

Neighboring states took more drastic swipes at brick-and-mortar stores: Washington state and almost all of California reduced in-store capacities to 25%.

Brown's office says she did enough to protect shoppers' safety.

"When implementing our health and safety measures, we have had to balance the need to limit the amount of people who come into contact with each other with the need for businesses to stay open," says Merah. "The two-week freeze measures allow retail to keep operating safely (but at a reduced capacity) and, along with the other freeze restrictions, model the changes we need Oregonians to make in limiting physical contact with others."

But experts say Oregon's modest reduction in retail capacity might be insufficient to reduce the spread of the virus on Black Friday.

In March, when most states first imposed stay-home orders, little was known about how the coronavirus is spread and transmitted. Now, however, health experts understand that the virus "aerosolizes," which means moisture particles containing the virus hang in the air for up to three hours after an infected person exhales, coughs, talks or sneezes, according to a Harvard study released last week.

"With aerosols indoors, there's no such thing as a safe distance," says Chunhuei Chi, director of the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University. "We are at a very high risk, even independent from the holiday. Given that we are at a very high level of new cases, that means the virus's presence is everywhere."

Washington state officials say they lowered indoor retail capacity so significantly because it is one of the major risk factors.

"We know that a primary risk factor for spreading the virus is contact with an infected person in indoor spaces," says Franji Mayes, a spokesperson for the Washington State Department of Health.

Chi says Oregon businesses can elect on their own to reduce their store capacities to 25%, too, in order to reduce the risk of spreading the virus.

"I know there will be people who still want to shop," Chi says. "Personally, I would not shop on Black Friday."

An important comparison: Oregon is just one of five states that do not charge a sales tax. Washington, according to the nonprofit Tax Foundation, has the nation's fourth-highest combined sales tax, at 9.17%; California has the nation's ninth-highest, 8.56%.

That makes Oregon a relative shoppers' paradise.

Stores in the Portland metro region could see increased shoppers hailing from Washington state on Black Friday, especially at Jantzen Beach and Cascade Station shopping centers, says Josh Lehner, an Oregon state economist.

"I think for a lot of stores, 75% capacity isn't really a big deal. [With] 25% capacity in Washington, plus the sales tax, you would think that would push potentially more customers into the Oregon stores," Lehner says. "Oregon, particularly in the Portland region and through the Gorge, we [already] have more stores and larger sales in retail because of the border effect with Washington."

Lehner also noted that spending during the pandemic has been higher than anticipated. "Income is up and so spending is doing much better than feared," he says. "Holiday spending this year should be fairly strong. It should just be more online and e-commerce-related."

Gov. Brown faces difficult decisions about what activities to curtail amid rapidly spiking COVID-19 numbers. Every industry in the state is pointing fingers, like kids arguing their siblings should be in timeout. If retail was the big winner in the freeze, restaurants were the losers: Brown's decision to shut down on-premises dining and drinking has the Oregon Restaurant & Lodging Association howling.

But what drew the most attention over the weekend was Brown's appetite for cracking down on house parties—even as the holiday season approaches.

The governor's office says the Oregon State Police will work with local law enforcement to enforce social gathering rules during the "freeze period." Violators could face up to 30 days in jail and a fine of $1,250.

Those rules would be implemented "in the same way local law enforcement officers respond to noise complaints for loud parties, for example, and issue citations," says Charles Boyle, a spokesman for the governor.

Local police, however, don't appear to have plans to raid local households and mass-arrest Portlanders in the middle of dinner.

"The goal is not to be breaking down people's doors at Thanksgiving," says Jim Middaugh, a spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler.

Instead, Middaugh says, the Portland Police Bureau will work on educating the public about the governor's rules and encourage Portlanders to follow them.

"At this point, the direction within the Police Bureau and what the community can expect from us remains unchanged," says PPB spokesman Sgt. Kevin Allen. "Portland police officers will exercise discretion, as they do in all kinds of circumstances, with regard to how they work through issues that may arise in the coming few weeks following the governor's order."

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