Sisters is cautiously emerging from the COVID-19 shutdown after Governor Kate Brown last week gave Deschutes County the green light to enter Phase I of the state’s “reopening” protocol as of May 15.

Matters were thrown into confusion on Monday afternoon when a Baker County Circuit Court Judge invalidated all of Brown’s restrictions on businesses and social gatherings along with other executive orders around the coronavirus outbreak dating back to March 12. On Monday night, the Oregon Supreme Court stayed that ruling, leaving restrictions in place pending an appeal.

Many retail businesses and restaurants were back in operation under Oregon Health Authority guidelines over the weekend, while some announced that they were deferring opening into this week to allow them time to conform to those guidelines.

In a Sisters City Council workshop on Wednesday, May 13, Mayor Chuck Ryan praised the resiliency and determination of local business owners.

“Most of them are way down in revenue and are quote-unquote ‘in survival mode’ right now,” he said. “They’re all behind promoting good social distancing and PPE (personal protective equipment).”

Several councilors and City Manager Cory Misely made a concerted effort to reach out to local businesses earlier this month in preparation for reopening, an effort that councilors felt was well-received.

Councilor Michael Preedin said that, “Businesses just want to know that the City has their back. They just want a chance for survival. We may still lose some businesses, and that’s unfortunate.”

Mayor Ryan noted that some business owners have expressed concern that some patrons — young people and out-of-town visitors in particular — are not respecting concerns for employees’ safety.

“I can guarantee that, as we open up, that’s going to be a little bit of an issue,” Ryan cautioned.

The council gave the nod to Misley’s proposal that the City be open to allowing businesses to use City right-of-way — essentially parking spaces — for displays or seating if that helps them to meet distancing guidelines. Councilors asked to see a plan before authorizing the expenditure of $5,000 to $10,000 in materials to make such uses aesthetically pleasing.

Councilors expressed concern that any such program should not favor some businesses over others.

“I think it’s a fantastic idea,” said Nancy Connolly. “I just hope that there can be equity for all businesses.”

The Council is also amenable to offering some business license fee relief.

While City Hall will remain closed to the public for now, the City is reopening the recycling center — with restrictions — due to high public demand.

The Council agreed to extend its state of emergency declaration, which retains the City’s eligibility for state and federal emergency funding and flexibility to enact or maintain personnel protections. The City is officially moving away from discouraging visitors and tourism to a neutral position. Deschutes County allowed its ban on vacation rentals — a ban the City never imposed — to expire as of May 15.

“No one is advocating or encouraging tourists or visitors at this time,” Misley said.

Councilors are ambivalent about reopening the City campground adjacent to Creekside Park. While they agreed with the staff recommendation to open the campground with spacing restrictions, reduced site capacity and sharply limited stay times, some councilors expressed concern that it would attract out-of-town visitors, which is contrary to the spirit of the gradual reopening and the City’s “neutral” position on visitors.

“When we do open up, we expect a high demand,” Misley said. “There’s no way to not allow people from certain areas to come to town.”

Councilor Andrea Blum posed the question: “Are we going to be OK opening June 1 with the campground filling up with people from out of state?”

It is not legally or logistically viable to discriminate over who can reserve a campsite, so the City will have little means to control where campers come from.

Councilor Preedin suggested that the City can use the weeks prior to the planned opening to evaluate the risk, observing whether the Phase I reopening does, in fact, bring a higher volume of visitors, and the status of the disease outbreak.

The City is still working on sourcing PPE and hand-washing stations, which are in high demand across the nation.

Most of Sisters’ major events have independently decided to cancel; the City has not declined a permit for an event. Such permits require a public safety plan, which now includes a COVID-19 element, and must be approved by the Deschutes County health department. Events must conform to spacing requirements and gathering size restrictions.

The same concerns exist regarding events bringing people to Sisters from out of the area.

There have been no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the 97759 zip code and locals hope to keep it that way, even as the community seeks to return to a higher level of social and economic activity.