Coronavirus in Oregon: Coast town Warrenton orders tourists to leave, Astoria could follow
Salem Statesman Journal
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A town on the Oregon Coast has a simple message for tourists: go home.
The city of Warrenton passed a resolution Saturday night that essentially makes it illegal for people who live outside city limits to stay the night, including at one of Oregon’s largest campgrounds, due to concerns of coronavirus spread.
Resolution 2565, which came after an emergency declaration, was in response to thousands of people flooding the northern Oregon Coast Friday and Saturday despite the pleas of state officials to stay home.
“The situation meets every definition of a clear and present danger,” Warrenton Mayor Henry Balensifer told the Statesman Journal. “We had people flooding our shores and town from areas that are hotspots for the virus, treating it like a normal spring break.
“We saw hundreds of people in one place, our highways completely clogged and a very real danger of the virus spreading to our residents and overwhelming our medical facilities.
“We had to do something.”
Balensifer said he wouldn’t be surprised if other cities on the coast crafted similar responses. Indeed, two other Oregon Coast mayors called on tourists to stay away by Saturday’s end.
But the Warrenton resolution has real bite. It was unanimously passed by the City Council in cooperation with city police, who will have the power to arrest offenders, officials said.
The order does not outlaw people from visiting the city during the day, “although we strongly discourage it right now,” Balensifer said.
Order outlaws tourists from spending the night
The order essentially makes it illegal for people who live outside the city to stay overnight by shutting down anywhere they might stay.
Granted by the power of the emergency declaration, Balensifer said, the order closes camping at the city’s marina, on private property and at its four campgrounds — including Fort Stevens State Park, which has over 400 sites.
The Oregon Parks and Recreation Department, which originally said it would allow some campers to stay through April 2, said it would comply with the city’s order to close camping at the state park.
“We’re going to respect the city’s directive,” state parks spokesman Chris Havel said of Fort Stevens. “Our intention is to do everything we can to work with them.”
More: Oregon closes all campgrounds at state parks and forests to halt spread of coronavirus
The order also closes the city’s hotels and short-term rental houses, such as those found on Airbnb, Balensifer said.
There are multiple exemptions, including for camp hosts, employees and anyone “living as a long-term resident of the facilities.”
“I understand some people are worried about trying to find a place to stay, but we’re not charged to take care of those people,” Balensifer said in a video posted on Facebook. “It’s hard enough to handle what we have, we can’t handle thousands of people flooding the city if one gets sick and it spreads.”
Those who disobey the order — remaining in town overnight after a 24-hour period that began at 5 p.m. Saturday — would be subject to a Class C misdemeanor. It is an “arrestable offense,” but Balensifer said the goal was to make sure the order was carried out safely.
“We’re giving the police department the ability to use common sense,” he said.
Balensifer stressed that he’d spoken with county and state officials about the resolution, including senator Betsy Johnson and Lisa Sumption, director of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department.
“We didn’t make this decision in a vacuum,” he said.
Other mayors on the Oregon Coast speak out
Warrenton wasn’t the only coastal town asking visitors to go home.
Tillamook Mayor Suzanne Weber posted a video Saturday asking “all visitors at the north coast on non-essential business to leave immediately,” he said.
Astoria Mayor Bruce Jones issued an even more pointed response, saying he was “appalled by the sight of tens of thousands of irresponsible vacationers flocking to the coast, with callous disregard for residents’ health and safety.” he wrote.
Jones said he was convening an emergency meeting of the Astoria City Council Sunday “to consider an emergency measure closing commercial lodging to non-residents.”
Meanwhile, Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler tweeted frustration about the crowds heading from Oregon’s largest city to the beach.
“Bumper to bumper traffic headed to the coast. Reports of block parties on streets. I cannot stress this enough. #COVID19 continues to spread because people don’t know they have it,” Wheeler wrote.
This story will be updated.
Zach Urness has been an outdoors reporter, photographer and videographer in Oregon for 12 years. To support his work, subscribe to the Statesman Journal. Urness can be reached at zurness@StatesmanJournal.com or (503) 399-6801. Find him on Twitter at @ZachsORoutdoors.
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