Lane County Public Health (LCPH) is returning to Cottage Grove this Friday and Saturday (Feb. 4, 5) to operate COVID-19 vaccine clinics on the city’s shop property behind Safeway.
The clinics, which will run from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. on Friday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, come after protests led to the shutting down of a planned two-week clinic at Bohemia Park funded and operated in part by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and Oregon Health Authority (OHA).
The city shop property was chosen as it is fenced and secured, lowering the chances that protests may interfere with the operation, according to city staff.
“We're doing it there to reduce the potential for negative interactions,” said Assistant to the City Manager Jake Boone.
The City of Cottage Grove has stated that “all vaccines will be available” at the clinic and attendees may access it by driving down N 14th Street between Safeway and the post office. Public health staff will administer vaccines on the city property, which LCPH obtained a special event permit to use.
The sizeable property space of the city shops will also offer a traffic advantage that the previous Bohemia Park drive-thru clinic lacked.
“This way, they're not blocking any roadways, so it should just be a location that's more conducive to efficient operations without negatively impacting traffic,” said Boone.
He added it will take place with no significant cost to the city.
“We're not funding it. Money's not coming out of our budget to do this,” he said. “This is Lane County Public Health that are hiring the people.”
Though this week’s clinic is running for only two days, depending on turnout and apparent demand in the community, LCPH may return for future clinics.
Holding the clinic on fenced city property is the latest strategy by the city to create space for people to more easily get access to COVID vaccines, a decision that was made in light of recent protests against their administration.
Last November, another LCPH clinic at the Cottage Grove Chamber of Commerce was the site of contention when protesters demonstrated and many attendees of the clinic complained they felt uncomfortable and intimidated due to the intensity of the protests, including the use of a bullhorn to mock the clinic.
Protesters had previously told The Sentinel that their core message was anti-force, or an argument against mandates, rather than anti-vaccine. However, some attendees of the Chamber of Commerce clinic expressed to The Sentinel that they did not feel the protesters were honoring their choice to get the vaccine.
A planned LCPH vaccine clinic at Harrison Elementary School was immediately canceled following the row, but Interim Public Information Officer for Lane County Health and Human Services Anne Marie Levis told The Sentinel that the protests were not entirely to blame for the cancellation.
Levis said an increased need in Thurston that day and low sign-up rate in Cottage Grove weighed more heavily on that decision.
Still, protesters were fingered by Cottage Grove city staff and health authorities as the reason for the recent Bohemia Park clinic closing on Jan. 24. Operation of the planned two-week clinic ended on its third day, both OHA organizers and city staff citing the presence and intimidation tactics of protesters.
Protesters who spoke with The Sentinel at the time disputed that they were intimidating and emphasized a desire to see “informed consent” around vaccine administration, arguing that vaccines are more dangerous and not as effective as mainstream health authorities have claimed.
Some said they respected the rights of people to choose but simply wanted to inform others about what they regard as damning evidence against the vaccines’ safety.
Others criticized the use of FEMA and public money to run the clinic.
City Manager Richard Meyers was heavily critical of protesters, however, due to the closure of the Bohemia Park clinic.
“Other people interfering with someone else exercising their rights is not patriotic and is not the right thing to do,” he said as the clinic was closing. “They (attendees) have every right to come and get their vaccinations, without intimidation, without inhibitions, without oppression or anything else along that line.”
Part of the claim regarding intimidation tactics on the part of the protesters refers to confirmation from both city staff witnesses and Cottage Grove Police Chief Scott Shepherd that protesters had gone into the special event permit area while people were receiving or waiting in line to get vaccines.
A major shortcoming of the Bohemia Park drive-thru clinic, Shepherd said, was a lack of delineation on where those lines of the permit were drawn, resulting in some confusion and arguments about where the protesters could be.
In one case, a citation was issued, but not to a protester. Reportedly, one protester walked into the special event area to record a mother and her child receiving the vaccine. The mother responded aggressively enough toward the protester that the protester was able to press charges and, ultimately, the mother was cited for harassment.
Strictly from a law enforcement perspective, Shepherd said it was true that the mother was the one who violated the law, but that there is still a general responsibility for people to respect each other’s dignity.
“It doesn't mean just because you don't put your hands on somebody that you weren't involved in the problem of creating a confrontation,” he said, adding that he hoped to see disagreement among community members transpire in a more respectful manner.
Meyers cited this incident as a reason for using a fenced area for this week’s clinics.
“There's a right of privacy in any kind of healthcare decision and that's the thing that's most disturbing about this, is they were violating that privacy and entering those spaces,” he said. “That's why we've strictly said, ‘Hey, this interference will not be tolerated this time.’ And they're going to have to be much more respectable to the privacy and the rights of the other people.”
Shepherd also said he would like to set up clear barriers for the city shop clinics, indicating where people can gather.
“The role of the police department is to make sure that nobody commits violations or crimes, and that everybody is able to protest or express their views and do it in a safe manner,” he said. “I take responsibility for not recognizing that a sidewalk right in the middle of the (Bohemia Park) parking lot didn't have a clear, ‘you're-not-supposed-to-go-across-this’ line and that's what allowed access and started that confrontation with the mother and child. I think we have a better plan for this one.”
Another issue from the law enforcement perspective is simply the bandwidth to manage any issues that may come up.
The Cottage Grove Police Department (CGPD) typically has two officers on patrol at any given time and emergency calls may strain resources and prevent officers from responding to calls for service at the clinics. Meyers stated, though, that the Lane County Sheriff’s Office is due to send two deputies to help with law enforcement over the course of this week’s operation.
“We’re trying to … create as much of a comfortable environment as we can for those that are coming in exercising their choice,” he said.
Meanwhile, a new wrinkle emerged today (Thursday, Feb. 3) when another special events permit was approved for a “Life Celebration”, which will take place along an open area on the west side of N 14th Street near the city shop clinic.
“They want to recognize those that are attending the vaccine clinic and kind of thank them for thinking of others and welcome them and create a little more comfortable environment,” said Meyers of his understanding of the organizers’ intent.
The permit extends from the Domino’s Pizza property line to Row River Trail and runs about 25 feet deep into the field. Between four and 20 people are anticipated to attend the event, but Meyers said the appearance of more would not necessarily violate the permit, given the size of the field.
The issuance of a special event permit does, however, give holders of that permit protection against outside interference.
City code on special events states that “no person shall unreasonably interfere with a special event or participants of a special event.”
Meyers added, “if anybody enters that space that's not a part of their event that’s got the intent to interfere, we will treat them that way. If they enter the area that is designated and set aside and reserved for the clinic, they will also be interfering and will be subject to a citation for violation of the ordinance.”
He also said, as with any group who wants to voice an opinion, protesters are welcome to apply for their own special events permit, but that the city would avoid placing the two groups adjacent to each other.
Protests and gatherings are still permissible on public property without a permit, but they must not block any streets or pathways.
Shepherd said he was hopeful for cooler heads to prevail among community members at this week’s clinic and future events.
“We don't want to inhibit the rights of people to protest, but they have to do it within parameters that we have set to make the situation safe and to make it manageable,” said Shepherd. “Civility will go a long way to making sure that this event is not as contentious as they have been in the past.”