County commissioners and executives talked through rent relief, reopening and general COVID response points in their July 7 Board of Commissioners meeting, after two weeks out of session. At the virtual meeting, which was live streamed on YouTube, commissioners passed several pandemic-related orders and made plans for obtaining and using further state and federal funding for their COVID response.
Rent Relief and the eviction moratorium
The board unanimously passed an order to grant five rent relief contracts to nonprofit organizations, and to give authority to the county administrator to sign these contracts.
The board also passed an order to award two rent relief contracts to St Vincent de Paul. It passed 4-0, with board chair Heather Buch abstaining to vote because of her relationship with the director of the organization, which she said was a conflict of interest.
Karen Gaffney, the county Health and Human Services director, said these contracts will help the county process applications for the rent relief money and get it out to people faster.
Steve Manela, Human services division manager, and Alex Cuyler, the county’s intergovernmental relations manager, explained details of the rent relief plan and the state eviction moratorium to the board. Manela said these aspects of the COVID response are important because the rent nonpayment rate for Eugene in June was 11 percent.
In June, Lane County started its rental relief program with $930,000 of state money. The county has distributed 42 percent of that so far, Manela said.
The county received an additional $6.1 million of federal funding, which will be available July 15.
The total amount of rent relief money the county has contracted to nonprofit organizations, including those that were approved July 7, is $5.8 million. Five percent of these funds can be used to administer them.
On June 26, the Oregon Legislature extended the statewide eviction moratorium to Oct. 1. The moratorium bans most evictions, including in situations where a tenant doesn’t pay rent.
Cuyler explained that the moratorium applies to commercial and residential buildings. The moratorium automatically goes into effect for tenants.
However, during the moratorium, a landlord can give a tenant a notice to pay back rent within 14 days, Cuyler said. Tenants have to respond to landlords in writing saying that they will take advantage of the six-month grace period. Tenants will have to pay rent if they ignore the notice, Cuyler warned.
County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky and Gaffney gave the board an update on the overall COVID-19 situation and response plan.
Total case numbers have been rapidly increasing in Lane County and were at 243 on July 7, with 63 currently infectious cases. But case numbers don’t show the whole picture, Mokrohisky said.
“There’s no question that we’ve seen an increase in the number of cases. It’s important to note that we’re now reporting cases differently,” he said.
Confirmed and presumptive cases are now being counted together, while they were being counted separately before. Presumptive cases are people who have symptoms of COVID and have had extended exposure to the virus.
While total cases are up, deaths, hospitalizations and sporadic cases are still low in Lane County, Mokrohisky said.
Mokrohisky said that there have been three COVID-related deaths in Lane County. Infectious cases have gone down. And Lane County’s sporadic case rate, the number of cases that are unrelated to any others, is the second lowest out of 36 Oregon counties.
“The higher your sporadic case rate is, the more concerned the public health officials are about the potential for an outbreak in your community,” he said.
About 500 COVID-19 tests are being carried out in Lane County every day, according to Gaffney, with 26,000 total tests conducted in the county so far.
Gaffney said the county is planning on increasing testing capacity.
Lane County doesn’t have its own lab, so it relies on commercial labs, hospital labs and the Oregon State Public Health Laboratory. The county is working with the University of Oregon to make a mass testing system, Gaffney said. The plan still needs FDA approval.
Gaffney also said the Oregon Department of Human Services and the Health Authority made a joint plan to have more regular testing for people in assisted living facilities for the elderly. This includes an initial large scale testing, then regular weekly testing of about 25 percent of staff.
Gaffney said this testing would start within a few weeks in Lane County.
Commissioner Pete Sorensen criticized the Lane County Public Health department for simply accepting state reopening directions without pushing for additional local preventative measures. With case counts rising in Lane County, he said that the county should go back to Phase 1 reopening.
“I really think that the public concern is out there, and the medical evidence is out there that would justify going back to Phase 1, rather than allow the global pandemic that’s hitting us continue to expand the number of cases,” he said.
He blamed the increase in cases on young people who haven’t been taking proper distancing measures in Lane County.
Commissioner Jay Bozievich opposed the idea of returning to Phase 1, saying that case count isn’t a good measure. “I ask people to watch the hospitalization rate. Watch the death rate,” he said. “That’s a better measure of the severity of the pandemic.”
Mokrohisky said he’d be looking at a variety of factors, including case count, to decide about changing reopening plans. He didn’t commit to any changes at the meeting.
Gaffney said the county is working with the University of Oregon, Lane Community College and local K-12 schools on reopening plans.
She said each school will have to submit its building-specific reopening plans to county public health for review by August 15 before they are submitted to the state of Oregon for approval. The schools will have a choice of proposing a plan for online-only, in-person or hybrid learning.
Gaffney acknowledged the issues with online education but said the need for good education needs to be balanced with the need to contain the pandemic.
Cuyler outlined the overall funding situation for Lane County’s pandemic response for the rest of the year.
Cuyler said the big chunk of federal money that came to the state, $1.6 billion from the coronavirus relief fund, was supposed to be distributed through the state to local governments. But it only went to governments that had more than 500,000 residents in the county. So Lane County didn’t get any direct money.
But he said the state did agree to give some money to Lane County and other smaller local governments.
The county already received $5 million to reimburse coronavirus expenses. The state then agreed to approve another $10.7 million that Lane County can draw from. But this is something they have to ask for, and Lane County has to justify all expenses. This money comes with contract arrangements, which can be hard to navigate, he said.
For example, that $10.7 million can only be used for specific things, and must all be used by Dec.31.
The board agreed to make sure to find uses for all of this money, and to make sure to use every penny by the end of the year.