Oregon’s electric co-ops are transitioning open, but with a new look focused on safety

By Ted Case
Photos by Bailey Anderson

Two men install protective barrier in an office
Sunriver Glass employees install protective barriers in the Midstate Electric Cooperative office in La Pine.

To say Oregon’s electric co-ops are transitioning back to business is a bit of a misnomer. They never actually closed.

Yes, many employees worked from home, but the business of running an electric utility never grinds to a halt, like much of the economy this spring. But Oregon’s electric co-ops are beginning to open their offices—or at least making plans to—in accordance with the different phases of Gov. Kate Brown’s Reopening Oregon program.

A snapshot of three different co-ops from three different Oregon regions— coastal, high desert, and frontier— reinforces the adage, “If you’ve met one co-op, you’ve met one co-op.”

While some co-ops have high levels of foot traffic and are social hubs of their communities, others are more isolated and have fewer people coming through their doors. While each Oregon co-op approaches reopening differently and on its own time frame, the common denominator is, of course, the safety of employees and the public.

Coos-Curry Electric Cooperative has four offices along a long stretch of Oregon’s south coast. As the south coast was entering phase one of reopening, Coos-Curry CEO Brent Bischoff talked to a county administrator and asked what county leaders thought of the co-op reopening its doors.

“They told us, ‘We’d definitely like you to do that,’” Bischoff said.

Coos-Curry was already putting safety measures in place in all its offices, including plexiglass and social-distance markings so co-op members know the expectations.

Bischoff said his staff was comfortable with the new alignment and “members of the co-op just want us to get back to normal.” However, there may be a new normal as foot traffic in the co-ops has so far not matched pre-COVID-19 levels.

“Perhaps our members have found easier ways to pay their power bills,” Bischoff said.

Midstate Electric Cooperative, in the high-desert community of La Pine, opened its lobby doors June 15, with social-distance measures similar to Coos-Curry Electric, including new barriers and roping. The office reopened in accordance with the Deschutes County reopening plan and, for General Manager Dave Schneider, it could not have come soon enough.

A woman helping a man in the lobby
Midstate’s lobby allows faster and safe transactions between staff and their members. “Our business has not slowed down,” said CEO Dave Schneider.

“Our business has not slowed down,” he said, noting his staff was busy with account transfers and new accounts, among other duties.

He added that much of this work is paperwork-intensive, and asking members to go to their website and email applications bogs down the process.

“It’s been inconvenient to our members,” Schneider said.

He says the new configuration will expedite the paperwork while still keeping everyone safe.

The office opening at Harney Electric Cooperative in Hines has a little more of a frontier feel to it. Like other co-ops, Harney Electric is taking steps to make sure everyone is safe by installing plexiglass, but in June the co-op had what Manager Fred Flippence called a “soft opening” as the county entered phase one and allowed places like restaurants and barbershops to open. The co-op put a sign on a door asking members to knock if they needed assistance, then allowed one member at a time to enter the premises.

Even in a county with few documented cases of COVID-19, the co-op is taking precautions to protect the public and employees by practicing social distancing and wiping down surfaces.

“We also put out a sign that said, ‘If you’re sick, we want you to stay out,’” Flippence said. “Out here, we don’t beat around the bush,” he added with a laugh.