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Businesses Pan Oregon’s New Mask Rule Requiring Customer Checks

Business groups say they don’t want to be the “vaccine police,” but support for alternatives -- such as resuming a full mask mandate or allowing maskless customers with no vaccination verification -- is unclear.
Oregon State Capitol in Salem. | COURTESY OF OREGON LEGISLATURE
May 19, 2021

Some Oregon business leaders sharply criticized the Oregon Health Authority’s new rule that lets fully vaccinated people go maskless in indoor business settings, saying it unfairly puts employees in charge of enforcing a state policy and confuses the public. 

The mask rule, released Tuesday, allows businesses to let fully vaccinated customers go maskless if they show a vaccine record to an employee. The state change also lets businesses  opt not to check vaccination cards and instead continue requiring all customers wear masks. 

Even though the state is giving businesses a choice, retailers and other businesses feel under pressure because the public has read national headlines about the federal Centers for Disease Control & Prevention saying that fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear a mask indoors, with certain exceptions such as health care clinics and hospitals and public transportation. States are not required to follow the federal suggestion, and can keep tougher rules, a detail that the public can overlook.

Now, Oregon frontline workers face hostility when asking customers to show proof of vaccination status, or when customers learn the business still requires masks.

“Our members are begging not to be the vaccine police,” Jenny Dressler, legislative counsel with the 27,000-member Oregon State Chamber of Commerce, on Wednesday told lawmakers on the House COVID-19 Subcommittee. 

She said the business group surveyed members and found the main concerns are uncertainty about how to “properly ask” the question and how to enforce the rule when patrons refuse to comply.

Those commenting Wednesday didn’t agree on a clear alternative to the state’s new rule.

In general, the business community’s suggested Oregon could either continue to mandate masks, let customers enter businesses maskless and without checks, or some combination. But Oregon retailers and grocers were explicit they don’t want to be in the business of checking vaccine records.

Yet it could be politically tricky for the state now to go back to mandating masks, just as fully vaccinated people have begun enjoying the benefit of taking off their masks in the many venues that are now checking vaccination cards.

Amanda Dalton, acting president of the Northwest Grocery Association, said grocery stores across the state have faced hostility and conflicts with customers over the change. She gave examples: a family grocery store in central Oregon is considering hiring security guards; an independent grocer on the coast is uncertain how to check the vaccination status of upwards of 18,000 customers each week.

“We cannot continue to be the mask and vaccination police,” Dalton said.

Rep. Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, said grocery stores and others faced hostility at the start of the pandemic when people didn’t want to wear masks and stores had to ask customers to comply.

She asked if there’s a way to shift the state’s approach or increase public education as the state also continues its vaccination drive.

Dalton said lawmakers need to take the issue seriously.
“This is real,” Dalton said. “You have a real problem across the state.”

Dalton’s advice was blunt: “We just need a complete reset.”

Frontline Workers Face Customer Ire

Lawmakers heard an on-the-ground perspective from Melody Gramley, a Fred Meyer employee in Oregon and vice president of the United Food and Commercial Workers 555, which represents more than 25,000 workers in Oregon and southwest Washington. In one case, Gramley said, a customer swore at a store employee and then threatened to fight the manager before leaving after being asked to show a vaccination record. 

Entry-level workers are often the ones who get the undesirable job of greeting incoming customers and spelling out store requirements on masking and vaccination verification.

“They’re not trained to do that and they just let the customer in,” Gramley said.

Paloma Sparks, vice president and general counsel of Oregon Business & industry, urged the state to come up with a solid plan. The group represents more than 1,600 members from a variety of industries across Oregon.

“We need a real plan for achievable goals to be able to stop requiring masks,” Sparks said. “The public is losing patience.”

Patrons Scream At Recreation Staff

Concerns run across the public and private sector. Scott Winkels, a lobbyist with the League of Oregon Cities, said there is a “disconnect” between the CDC and Oregon’s rule. 

City and other government workers have faced hostilities too. Winkels said Lake Oswego recreation employees had patrons scream at them after they tried to enforce the new rule. 

“It was certainly not acceptable conduct,” Winkels said.

The mask system will stay in place for the foreseeable future as Oregon pushes toward the goal of vaccinating at least 70% of people 16 and older. The statewide rate is about 62% and officials expect to hit that goal sometime in June. When Oregon hits that target, state officials will end capacity limits for stores, restaurants and entertainment venues. 

It’s less certain at what point the state will drop its mask rule. State officials said that as vaccination rates rise, they will revisit the mask rule and decide whether to keep it mandatory or reduce it to a suggestion.

You can reach Ben Botkin at [email protected] or via Twitter @BenBotkin1.