December 9, 2022

A year after it shut down, Oregon’s state coffers are flush with cash, thousands still jobless

Oregon may have led the nation in curbing the pandemic on paper, but thousands of Oregonians are paying for the damages it left behind.

In the wake of the sickness, death, and joblessness that COVID-19 brought upon the state, here’s a look back at how the past 12 months have treated Oregon since its first statewide shutdown on March 23.

Containing the spread

No one knows when COVID made landfall in Oregon, but it was February 28 that a janitor at a Lake Oswego elementary became the first person on the books to come down with the virus. He survived, but on March 14, a 70-year-old man in Multnomah County became the first person reported to die from the pandemic.

Since then, the virus has taken the lives of at least 2,363 people and sickened 161,531 others, the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) reports. 

Over the course of the pandemic, Oregon’s infections consistently ranked among the lowest in the nation alongside Maine, Vermont, Hawaii, and Washington. Between summer break and the winter holidays, Oregon saw cases surge like its neighbors as statewide positivity rates climbed from 3.8% to 6.1% in December, as the OHA reported. More than half of its caseload to date were reported in just the past six months.

Compared to the rest of the world, Oregon’s case rates would rank as the 36th worst for COVID-19 case rates if it were a nation. To date, 3.8% of its 4.2 million residents have been infected by COVID-19. Today, Oregon’s case rates resemble the state’s rolling weekly averages over the summer, hovering around 300 to 400 rather than over 1,000. That is due in no small part to vaccinations and the sacrifices of millions of Oregonians who kept one other safe.

Like other states, Oregon’s ever-evolving health metrics came straight from Gov. Kate Brown’s desk where her critics say too much power has resided for the past 12 months. Her March 23 stay-at-home order, which locked down thousands of nonessential business and sent schools online, preceded two tiered reopening plans that have ebbed and flowed with case rates and political pressure.

As 31 of Oregon’s 36 counties reopen again, state health officials are holding their breath for more cases as potent strains of the virus take hold.

The economy

Going into 2020, Oregon’s 3.4% jobless rate was one of the lowest in the nation, below even the 3.6% national average. That all changed on March 23 as schools, airlines, bars, restaurants, and theaters shut down, sending jobless parents back home. Oregon’s jobless rate peaked at 13.2% in April, staying in the double digits through July before falling to 6.1% in February. 

In that time, thousands of Oregonians have spent thousands more hours on hold with the state’s employment department, whose decades-old computer systems set it up for failure.

As more than 136,000 Oregonians search for work, few job sectors have been harder hit than the leisure and hospitality industry, which has not recouped some 38.7% of its payroll workers, compared to 9.1% statewide, regional economist Guy Tauer of the Oregon Employment Department reported in March.

Like Washington, Oregon began the pandemic with $1.6 billion in cash reserves state lawmakers have been reluctant to touch while Gov. Brown mulls delaying voter-approved addiction centers. As federal dollars trickle into the state, so has the good news for Oregon’s budget forecasts. Once beset with a $4.4 billion shortfall, the state’s budget hole is all but closed in light of federal stimulus and better than expected corporate, cannabis, and lottery revenues. 

Oregon is still at risk of coming up short when it comes to covering the $378 million in back rent studies suggest the state could be facing. Last fall, the state set aside $150 million for housing assistance, including a reimbursement program for landlords agreeing to forgive 20% of their tenants’ rent.

Schools 

In contrast to states like Washington, Oregon began the pandemic determined to keep schools closed. By New Year’s, Brown left the decision to reopen up to districts, as pressure from parents and Republican state lawmakers ramped up.

This week, 22% of Oregon’s 587,000 K-12 students are learning onsite full-time. Another 35% are learning face to face part-time. Brown wants the number of classrooms offering onsite instruction to be 100% by mid-April. Parents can opt their children out if they choose.

State lawmakers are also looking to spend $250 million on summer programs to address student learning loss from the stresses of the pandemic.

Vaccine rollout

Getting businesses back on their feet will depend on how many shots Oregon can get into willing arms this year. May 1 is the date the Biden administration has set for states to open priority vaccinations for everyone 16 and older, a timeline OHA Director Patrick Allen has said the state will abide by.

With a limited first batch of vaccines on hand and spotty communication with the Trump administration, Oregon was left to pick winners and losers early into its vaccine rollout. Like many states, it chose a broad range of health care workers and people in long-term care facilities to go first. Brown’s decision to vaccinate teachers weeks ahead of seniors in February compounded with the state’s initially slow rollout has inflamed frustrations with disparate access to aid.

The pandemic has highlighted widening disparities in the state for Oregonians of color most of all. White Oregonians account for a disproportionate percentage of vaccinations since the rollout began in December and Allen has said racial gaps may close once shots go out to service workers next week. State lawmakers want to close lingering inequities in Oregon’s health care system for good.

Looking ahead

The months ahead may be a greater challenge for Oregon than the past 12 as its ongoing crises, from housing Labor Day wildfire survivors to political unrest, all converge on an overwhelmed state legislature tied up in technical difficulties from remote work and COVID health protocols. 

The Oregon Legislature has until June 28 to consider some 4,000 bills addressing the pandemic and its aftermath. Millions of Oregonians may depend on at least a few finding their way to Brown’s desk this session.

This article was originally posted on A year after it shut down, Oregon’s state coffers are flush with cash, thousands still jobless

Sydney Boles