Sisters’ civic leaders are looking toward the next phase in the community’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Sisters City Council will meet in a workshop via Zoom on Wednesday, May 13 to discuss next steps and how the City will sync up with the state and county in a phased “reopening” of the local economy. Those interested in attending the meeting can request the Zoom link by emailing kprosser@ci.sisters.or.us starting May 8 up until 4 p.m. on May 13 and also through the City’s website. A call-in option will be available.

Topics will include whether or not to extend the City’s State of Emergency Declaration, which is due to expire. Extending the State of Emergency Declaration preserves legal authorities to take actions related to the crisis and maintains funding eligibility — it does NOT mean COVID-19 related lockdowns will extend for the length of the state of emergency.

City Manager Cory Misley and Mayor Chuck Ryan told The Nugget last week that the Council will likely discuss when and how to reopen the recycling center and other city facilities and contingency plans for whether and how the City campground will operate.

The City has limited ability to act independently on pandemic response.

“The City has limited decision-making power, we really do,” Ryan said. “We’re following state and federal guidelines.”

The City is awaiting action from the State of Oregon and Deschutes County to initiate a three-phased program to reopen economic and social activity projected to start this month — with restrictions. The City’s current understanding is that, “the first phase includes restaurants and bars, most retail, childcare, outdoor recreation, and other personal services (hair/nail salons, etc.).”

Criteria key off of Trump administration guidelines that say that reopening requires downward trajectories of cases during a 14-day period or of positive tests as a percent of total tests. They also call for “surge capacity” in healthcare systems and “robust testing and contact tracing.” Counties are submitting framework plans for reopening; Deschutes County was expected to complete and submit its plan this week.

Some eastern counties have had very few or no confirmed COVID-19, while overall, the state has seen 2,680 confirmed cases, resulting in 109 deaths. As of Monday, Deschutes County has had 79 confirmed cases, but no COVID-19 deaths.

Deschutes County has seen neither a substantial spike nor a marked, steady decline in cases, which makes it unclear how criteria will be applied here. Misely acknowledged that there is uncertainty in the community because we don’t know when we’ll be in Phase 1 or how long we’ll be in Phase 1. Misley and Ryan told The Nugget that the City is committed to providing clear information and guidance as it becomes available.

Clarity and consistency of communication and policy are significant goals for council and staff.

“It’s a very fluid and also nuanced situation,” Misley said.

Ryan and Misley noted that one of the things the Council will have to determine is what message the City is sending out into the broader world regarding Sisters’ posture. Currently, the City is officially discouraging visitors.

Misley said that it’s hard to envision actively encouraging an influx of visitors any time this summer (and most of Sisters’ major events have canceled in part to avoid doing so) but the City will need to decide, “Do we need to extend the discouragement and what does it mean to be ‘neutral’?”

Misely and Ryan recognized that consistent guidelines and message are important to businesses that are trying to figure out what the next steps are going forward into summer.

Councilors and staff spent several hours last week reaching out to business owners to see what their outlook is. While the business community is clearly taking a serious beating due to restrictions on activity, Ryan said he was impressed by what he heard.

“They’re not giving up,” Ryan said. “They’re reinventing themselves in many ways. I’m just amazed at the resolve of these businesses.”

The City is also looking at ways it might support the community, including providing access to safety and personal protective equipment. Public Works Project Coordinator Troy Rayburn has been working on sourcing hand-washing stations and sanitizer, and other PPE, but Sisters is one of thousands of municipalities competing for scarce resources.

“It’s pretty dry out there,” Misley said. “It’s rough sledding. There are hundreds of small towns across Oregon struggling to deal with this.”

Misley said that the City is also open to looking at ways it can support businesses in meeting state and county requirements for social distancing in restaurant settings and conforming to other guidelines. It’s also important that the businesses in Sisters are all on the same page in meeting customer and employee safety requirements.

“How can we make sure the businesses are being as consistent as possible?” Misley said.

While many Sisters events have canceled on their own initiative, Misely said that the City has never flatly said that they will not issue an event permit. Event permits going forward will be subject to ongoing state-level restrictions on gathering size. City code requires that event permit applications include a public-safety plan. That plan has to be signed off on by the Deschutes County Health Department.

“Within that plan, it needs to address COVID-19,” Misley said.

It’s not clear yet how that will play out in practical terms.

“We haven’t crossed that bridge yet,” Misley said. “We’re trying to build a channel to the county.”

As the Sisters community seeks to emerge from lockdown and move into a social and economic environment radically changed by COVID-19, the City of Sisters is striving to find a way to balance public health and safety and economic and social well-being — with constraints on their range of action and limited tools in the policy tool kit.

“It’s a perfect storm,” Misley said. “It really is.”