Oregon’s New Mask Rule Generates More Questions Than Answers

What’s your choice? Masks on, or off?

Fully-vaccinated Oregonians are no longer required by the state to wear masks in public. But exactly what that means for people as they go about their daily lives is unclear.

Vaccination rates vary widely from county to county across the state, and after over a year of covering their faces, some Oregonians may feel uncomfortable removing their masks. Others may be unvaccinated and choose to abandon masks, anyway. And there are big questions about how businesses will enforce the rule, if they will at all.

In a press conference Friday, Oregon Health Authority state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger expanded on what the new mask guidance will mean for businesses and Oregonians.

“Oregonians, like people in the rest of the country, have a choice. To protect yourself and your families and those around you by continuing to wear your mask and keep your distance … or get your vaccine,” Sidelinger said.

But it may not be that simple. Businesses will also be responsible for ensuring their customers are either vaccinated or masked and distanced from employees and from one another. Sidelinger suggested a greeter at the door could screen people as they enter a business. If that is too difficult, businesses will be welcomed to continue acting as they have so far, with mask requirements and reduced capacity.

Sidelinger also said that businesses that allow fully-vaccinated Oregonians to enter unmasked will not be able to turn away unvaccinated people wearing masks. “We don’t want to exclude anyone.”

Who Will Comply?

At shops in Portland’s Pearl District Friday, most pedestrians wore masks, both inside and outside. Meagan Johnson and Michael Bono chose to wear their masks when purchasing donuts, even though they are each fully vaccinated.

One reason they gave for keeping on their masks was habit. But another was for the comfort of people around them.

“You don’t know how to tell who’s actually vaccinated or not without them actually holding their card on their shoulder, or something like that,” Bono said. “I think that’s one of the big things that will keep us wearing a mask for a while.”

Johnson agreed, and added that not wearing a mask could signal that you’re anti-science, and give off “the idea that you might not be vaccinated and you’re being unsafe, and not protecting yourself, or being an anti-masker or anti-vaxxer.”

Other shoppers pointed out that using masks and washing their hands more frequently protect them from the flu as well as COVID-19. And retail chain Fred Meyers just announced that all of its locations would continue to require masks and physical distancing.

But in other communities, mask compliance was already a controversial subject. Anti-mask rallies have become a fixture on some street corners. And some of the counties with the lowest vaccination rates have historically had the lowest rates of mask compliance.

When asked what the next few months might look like in counties with low vaccination rates and low rates of mask compliance, Sidelinger hedged.

”I want to encourage individuals to take steps to protect those around them. We have tools available,” he said.

The tools are, not surprisingly, vaccination, distancing and masks. But that approach only works if people use those tools and businesses follow the new regulations.

And businesses have ignored Oregon’s mask and social distancing mandates in the past. When asked how the state would ensure compliance, Sidelinger answered, “When we issue guidance, we expect all businesses to follow that guidance.”

Two Possible Futures

Just two weeks ago, several Oregon counties were under state-imposed extreme risk restrictions, which prohibited indoor restaurant dining and limited other activities. And while the number of daily COVID-19 cases reported each day has declined since then, “It’s not happening as fast as we’d like,” Sidelinger said, noting that cases will only continue to decline if people continue to take precautions.

In fact, there are just as many Oregonians currently hospitalized with COVID-19 as there were when the extreme risk restrictions started, though that number is expected to start to trend down.

The evidence shows that the COVID-19 vaccines work, and that those who have been vaccinated are far less likely to spread the coronavirus. But protection from the vaccine isn’t 100%, and vaccinated Oregonians have gotten sick, been hospitalized, and even died. A fully-vaccinated person can still catch COVID-19 indoors at a business, even if they can’t spread it. And the more the coronavirus is circulating within a community, the more likely that even vaccinated people will catch it.

On Thursday, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said that if the pandemic starts to worsen, mask mandates could come back. Sidelinger acknowledged that, as well. He compared the pandemic’s progress to springtime in Oregon: “Right now, it’s sunny and warm. But we know we’re not guaranteed sunny days all the way into summer. That’s how COVID is.”

This story was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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