It has been a little over seven weeks but for many Oregonians, the effects of the coronavirus pandemic on their everyday lives seem like an eternity. Whether it be donning a mask, isolating at home, or losing much-needed income, the citizens of Curry County are doing their part by joining with the rest of the state and nation. They did all that was asked — adopting stringent social distancing and other measures, in an attempt to "flatten the curve" and thereby rein in the disastrous health consequences associated with the disease. Now what?
The good news is that according to the experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) those mitigation strategies appear to be working. Recent reports across the nation point to fewer new cases. COVID appears to be slowing down and several states, including Oregon, are looking to gradually reopen as soon as today, May 1.
Before the pandemic, the economy was roaring along breaking record after record and looking rather invincible. COVID-19 rewrote that playbook, at least temporarily. America's businesses, including many here on the Oregon coast, shut down overnight with circuit-breaker precision. Since the governor's stay-at-home order, many local businesses have had little to no income. These businesses are staring into a financial abyss. They are facing hard choices with few options.
After hunkering down, the question that seems to be on everyone's mind these days is... Is it time to put the county's workers back on the job?
In Curry County at press time, COVID cases have been relatively low when compared to other counties in Oregon numbering a mere four.
The COVID-19 impact on local fishing guides and charter businesses has been devastating.
Val Early and her husband, Gary, have been involved in the fishing industry for decades. Both have been licensed guides in Oregon since 1978 but have also guided in Alaska and California. Val sits in on the Oregon State Marine Board which is an appointed position by the governor and has her finger on the pulse of fishing locally. She is seeing in real-time what COVID-19 is doing to those who make their livelihoods on the waterways and she says it is not good.
"When the governor (Brown) enacted the 6-foot distancing requirement followed by the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) closing of fishing to all non-residents, it became impractical for drift boats and charters to conduct business as usual due to the size of the boats," Val said of the orders that went into place seven weeks ago. On May 5, fishing was allowed for out-of-state residents.
Val said that influx of out-of-state non-residents "is the lifeblood for our guides," adding "and it meant that even fishermen from as close as Crescent City were outlawed from being able to fish here in Curry County."
Add into the mix there was uncertainty about access to entry and exit points for boats due to a variety of entity closures including state parks, federal boat launches, and some local jurisdiction closures and she said that makes it "all but impossible for the guides to conduct their trade."
Early said of the closures that "I understand the need for them and I think most reasonable people in the fishing industry supports the governments' installation of distancing measures for safety concerns" but concedes "they couldn't have come at a worse time for area fishing."
"We were in the last part of winter steelhead season and lost that, now the (COVID) closures have carried into spring salmon season," she said. "This is this really short amount of time on the calendar when these guides make their money for the entire year...take that away and they have nothing to fall back on."
Val explains that many guides are self-employed and as such may not have access to unemployment. There have been provisions in state unemployment for "gig workers, self-employed, and independent contractors, but nothing has been rolled out at this time."
"Most guides are independent contractors, very few pay into unemployment."
Early says that none of the guides she has been in contact with have received any federal assistance money yet.
"Most have applied for it and they are still waiting," she said.
The number of guides with addresses in Curry County numbers 50, and another 381 includes all types of guides such as biking, fishing and tours, who admit to working the South Coast region. Also, eight registered charter outfits work the same area according to Val.
With talk of reopening the state swirling, Val said it may not matter.
"If it happens, at all, that might help a little but the summer season will be nowhere near where it should have been."
Maintaining self-distancing will still be a key to moving forward and Val feels the industry can meet that standard and more.
"We need to have our protocols in place and make it work. I think it is possible to maintain some distance within the boats as much as possible, but instilling additional protocols to protect guides and guests is doable too," she said. "We usually wear gloves as part of what we do so that shouldn't be an issue."
She admits it won't always be textbook perfect.
"There will be times briefly when guide and guest will be in closer contact than CDC guidelines but overall I think it will be fine," she said. "I believe after all of this our guides are going to be really cognizant of that and will be doing everything they can to protect their customers and themselves while doing their jobs."
The bottom line for Val, and others that bring their expertise to Curry County's waterways, is they all agree that they need to get back to work.
"We have obligations, families to support," Val said.