As the coronavirus swept though the state, three crucial days in March demonstrated the role Oregon’s electric cooperatives play in the lives of their consumers.

By Ted Case

Couch remnants on a power line, with a box truck below.
Remnants of a couch remain on a power line in Central Electric Cooperative territory following a prank that created extra work for CEC crews. Photo courtesy of Central Electric Cooperative

On March 20, 2020, there were 114 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oregon. While the cases were mostly clustered in the Portland metro area, Oregon’s 18 rural electric cooperatives prepared for the looming threat.

Schools were closed, and the Oregon Health Authority announced the infection rate doubled in the state every four days. As life was rapidly changing, a confluence of events during three crucial days demonstrated the role Oregon’s electric cooperatives play in the lives of more than a half-million of their consumers.

Friday, March 20

Phone calls stream into Oregon electric cooperatives’ member service representatives from consumers who feared they could no longer pay their electric bills.

“We’re hearing from people we’ve never heard from before,” says one co-op representative.

Electric co-ops such as Oregon Trail Electric Cooperative in Baker City announce they are suspending disconnects and late fees for those affected by the pandemic.

“We are committed to our communities,” says Joe Hathaway, an OTEC spokesman.

Meanwhile, more than 300 miles away from Baker City, lawmakers in Salem prepare to take emergency action.

At 1 p.m., the Oregon Legislature’s Joint Committee on Coronavirus Response meets in a locked-down State Capitol to discuss recommendations to help citizens affected by COVID-19. The committee debates a proposal to send funds directly to utilities to help consumers who cannot pay their electric bills. But it is unclear if the proposal includes consumer-owned utilities.

“We need to make sure this includes small (co-op) utilities,” says Sen. Arnie Roblan, co-chair of the committee. The committee agrees.

That evening, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown pleads with Oregonians to stay at home “unless absolutely necessary” to quell the spread of the novel coronavirus. She stops short of issuing an order for families to shelter in place, hoping her fellow Oregonians use common sense.

Meteorologists predict unseasonably warm temperatures over the weekend.

By day’s end, three more Oregonians die from coronavirus.

Saturday, March 21

Oregonians by the thousands take advantage of the sunshine and ignore Gov. Brown’s social-distancing guidelines, flocking to popular recreation areas such as the Oregon Coast and Columbia River Gorge. Other Oregonians experiment with dynamite.

At 11:45 a.m., Oregon State Police and Central Electric Co-op crews respond to a couch frame hanging from co-op power lines in Bend, caused by an explosive device that launched the furniture in the air.

“As if things aren’t crazy enough,” says Central Electric CEO Dave Markham. “But it’s our responsibility to keep the lights on.”

That afternoon, children’s books begin to arrive in rural mailboxes sponsored by Oregon co-ops involved in Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library—a gift each month to families with children age 5 and younger. The new books will soon be a scarce commodity.

Scenes of Oregonians frolicking on the Oregon Coast lead the nightly newscasts. Local officials are outraged at a scene that looks more like a rowdy spring break than that of a global pandemic.

Twenty-four more Oregonians test positive for the coronavirus.

Six women standing down a hallway in their office, maintaining distance between them
Salem Electric employees practice social distancing while serving their members. Photo by Michelle Adkins

Sunday, March 22

A group of 25 Portland-area mayors call upon Gov. Brown to issue an executive order compelling Oregonians to stay home.

As pressure mounts on the governor to take action, businesses continue discussions with her office regarding an executive order, urging her to include essential services—such as electric utilities—in the official list of who would be exempted to provide some certainty.

The Oregon Health Authority is prescient about the spread of the coronavirus. Over the past four days, the infection rate has doubled in the state. One more Oregonian is dead.

Gov. Brown has had enough.

Monday, March 23

Gov. Brown issues Executive Order 20-12, compelling Oregonians to “Stay home, save lives,” but she declines to offer a list of essential workers.

There is some initial confusion. A utility worker is pulled over by law enforcement and sent home. Co-op operations personnel ask if they are out of compliance with social distancing rules by working in the close quarters of two-man bucket trucks.

But the regulatory uncertainty is nothing compared to the disruption felt across the state. Thousands more Oregonians file for unemployment benefits, and three more are dead.

Oregon electric co-ops that also offer their consumers broadband deploy technicians in protective gear to wire new homes for high-speed internet— an essential service now that the kitchen table serves as the new corporate
headquarters. One Oregon co-op donates masks to a local hospital.

There will soon be COVID-19 cases in most rural counties, the contagion spreading to frontier towns that don’t even show up on most maps.

By day’s end the state is on indefinite lockdown. Stormy skies roll in from the Pacific Ocean across the vast expanse of rural Oregon.

Electric co-op consumers are warm and safe in their homes and connected to the world in some cases by co-op internet. But in places where social distancing is a way of life, they are now more isolated than ever before by a virus infinitely more sinister than dynamite.