EUGENE, Ore. — On Wednesday, the Lane County Board of Commissioners voted 4 to 1 to close down the Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza and the nearby “Butterfly” parking lot in response to growing concerns about public health and safety.
The board of commissioners asked Lane County’s Senior Public Health Officer, Dr. Patrick Luedtke, for his professional opinion of the site before deciding the fate of the plaza. Dr. Luedtke visited the camp six days in the past week and says while he’s all for freedom of speech and assembly, his findings revealed a health risk to the occupants and the public.
“Anytime you have a large area of people sharing air, food, shelter, and clothing, we have risks and clearly there were some risks there,” said Dr. Luedtke.
After his first visit to the campsite, he said the level of disease transmission risk exceeded his level of comfort.
“There were a variety of food lying around and that’s a problem because it attracts rats and mice. Also, right now we have a big pertussis problem that is growing in our country and it is getting worse. I have a concern with that,” said Dr. Luedtke.
He also expressed concerns about the risk of respiratory illnesses contracted through air contact. It’s a problem that was seen in 2011, when the home base for Occupy Atlanta tested positive for tuberculosis. But in Dr. Luedtke’s most recent visits, he says the SLEEPS site has gotten a lot cleaner.
“Some of the things are pretty admirable. The food tent, they did a good job, it’s clean in there. They’re restricting access so people don’t come in with dirty hands, dogs aren’t coming in and tainting their food and water, and that’s impressive,” said Dr. Luedtke.
Still, from a public health standpoint, he says that every day demonstrators are out there, the health risks increase for both occupants and the community. His prescription isn’t to clear protesters out, but to clean up the area.
“People should be able to protest, but they shouldn’t be protesting in squalor, they shouldn’t be protesting on a site that’s unhealthful to them or others, so we clean things up and provide a venue for them in a safe manner,” said Dr. Luedtke.
After the county cleans up the plaza, if SLEEPS demonstrators choose to return, Dr. Luedtke says a rotating schedule to clean the grounds would be in the best interest of the public’s health.