County health official concerned by camp in Free Speech Plaza

EUGENE, Ore. - Nearly two weeks after a court ruled they could continue to pitch their tents downtown, protesters say that Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza is cleaner than ever.

Officials from Lane County Public Health, however, have raised safety concerns about the protest activity centered around 12th and Oak Street.

After spending about an hour in the area inhabited by Eugene SLEEPS, Senior Public Health Officer Dr. Patrick Luetdke is calling for an emergency closure of the plaza for a thorough cleaning.

Luetdke said that a lack of power, water and restrooms in the area increased the risk of disease transmission past his comfort level. The amount of people living in such close quarters also adds to the health risks, the public health department said.

Protester Angie Bartow said the park blocks are actually quite clean.

"I think it is an excuse. Anything they possibly can find... any tiny little thing," said Bartow. "We've been here almost 2 weeks and nobody's gotten sick so far."

County Commissioner Pat Farr's office is across the street from the free speech plaza, and said he sees the SLEEPS protesters throughout his workday.

"On a daily basis I watch, and they have garbage cans out there. The folks who are staying have garbage cans. They sweep. They clean up," Farr said.

The department said that they recognize the people's right to peaceably assemble, however they believe it is necessary to find "a balance between those activities and the health, safety and well-being of others".

The county is holding a public meeting Wednesday (Sept. 4) to discuss a possible closure and cleaning of the site.

The free speech plaza was shut down for four days in December because of other health concerns in the area.