Rep. Greg Walden (R-Hood River) answered questions about COVID-19 and other current topics during his appearance at a Hood River Rotary Club meeting held via Zoom last week.

Walden encouraged people to follow current health and safety guidelines, and while he acknowledged that wearing a cloth mask isn’t always necessary — specifically in settings where you’re outdoors and able to maintain a 6-foot or greater social distance between yourself and others — it doesn’t hurt to wear one anyway.

“Unless you’re wearing an N95 mask, which has a filter … enough to keep the size of particles out from being breathed in, the reason for the mask is so that when you breathe out or cough or sneeze, you’re not sharing what you have with somebody else. That’s really what the masks are for,” said Walden in response to a question from a Rotary member on how best to encourage people to “buy in to the whole virus situation” and follow current guidelines. “If I was to give you counsel, it does no harm to wear a mask, wash your hands and keep your distancing and do more than you think you should have to do,” said Walden. “It will be better for others, and that’s what Rotary’s all about, right?"

One Rotary member asked about liability concerns that people are facing as businesses and senior care facilities begin to reopen, and what protections are or will be put in place.

“That is a big topic right now for employers at large,” answered Walden. “If you follow the guidelines that are out there from the CDC or your standard local health authorities, you know, you still run the risk of ‘will you get sued’ if you reopen, quote unquote, ‘too soon,’ if you bring your folks back ‘too soon,’ what’s that liability look like… We’re also hearing that form the public sector: Are schools going to get sued if they reopen and kids get sick? You know, etc. etc., or teachers get sick.” Walden added that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) has “made clear that there will be no future COVID bill that doesn’t have some sort of liability remedy.” The Department of Health and Human Services released a declaration in early February that provides “liability immunity for activities related to medical countermeasures against COVID-19,” but other liability protections for businesses trying to reopen are vague, at best.

“There’s a path forward here that needs to occur,” said Walden. “Many businesses are trying to figure out their rules they’re trying to work their way through they’re trying to decide how to reimagine their business, how to bring back their workers, how to stay alive — and they don’t need this threat of class action lawsuit hanging over their heads, I don’t think, if they follow the rules.”

Walden is currently the Republican leader of the House Committee of Energy and Commerce, which legislates on a wide variety of issues — including healthcare and health insurance.

In response to a question on addressing disparities in the healthcare system, especially in regard to seniors, Walden reaffirmed his support of telehealth and telemedicine as a way to provide wider access to affordable care, and the need to enhance high speed broadband programs to increase access to those programs.

Walden was also asked his opinion on establishing a mail-in voting system nationwide in response to the pandemic. “I’ve actually gotten asked that a lot over the last couple of months because of Oregon’s status,” said Walden. “We’ve had a 20 to 30 year run-up to vote by mail, I’m a supporter of it, I think it works, I know with our statewide database you can catch fraud … So, I’m not opposed to it. What I’m opposed to is having the federal government mandate it on every state, especially with an election that’s just months away. I think it would be a disaster, and really undercut the ability to believe in the outcome.”

Walden added that if states are thoroughly prepared to launch a vote-by-mail program, they should “go for it,” but not before they have fraud and security protections on-par with what Oregon has. Regardless, the decision shouldn’t be made on the federal level, he said. “Remember, elections have always been the purview of the states, not the federal government. And we have enough trouble getting things right, federally.”

Walden, who has represented the Second Congressional District for the past 22 years, announced in October that he would not be seeking reelection, and that he would retire from the House of Representatives when his term ends in 2021.

When asked by a reporter what message he wanted to convey to his Hood River constituents as he finishes out his term in the midst of the pandemic, Walden answered:

“It’s been a great honor and privilege to represent Hood River both in the state legislature and in the congress over the course of, going back to 1989, I guess, I got elected to legislature in ’88, and we dealt with a lot of issues, trying to make a difference in the community, and we’ll continue to do so until we run through the tape at the end of the year.

“I feel very fortunate to have worked on behalf of the people in the district and trying to get as much in the area of results as I can. And still working on things, we’ve been going back and forth on the Bridge of the Gods and a pedestrian lane and trying to get some weight there so we can do that, but on the pandemic piece, we just need to be smart about this: We need to follow the guidelines, we need to participate in social distancing and all, limit your trips to the store if you can, you know, all those sorts of things, but we also need to reopen safely, smartly, because you can’t just keep this economy in a complete nosedive.

“I worry a lot about how long, how resilient we really are, because we’re a country made up of small and medium sized businesses we’re certainly a state, a community, made up of small and medium sized businesses, and there is some data that would indicate a big percentage of those may never come back, so — I don’t think economically we’ve seen or can fully comprehend what’s ahead. I think we’re all sort of in this suspended animation mode in some ways, thinking, ‘okay, we’ll get through this and then we’ll go back to our normal routine, and I’m afraid there will be a lot of retail businesses, especially restaurants, and other industries that have really been hammered and there won’t be any businesses, a job, to go back to, we’re going to have to work our way through that as a country and as a community. But Hood River usually pulls together pretty well, we’re blessed with a good healthcare system, but when you see … it (COVID) really hits African Americans, it hits black people, it hits Hispanic people, far higher than whites, and in a community that has a sizable, certainly Hispanic community, among others, we’ve got to be really thoughtful about the impact that COVID, uniquely, may have on certain of our neighbors, and we’re trying to figure out medically why that is, but we know it is, and so we’ve got to think about that as well.”

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