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Oregon Lifts Mask, Distancing Mandates For Fully Vaccinated People In 'Public Spaces'

The governor's decision follows new federal guidance released Thursday, but the state has not yet explained how it applies to retailers, restaurants and other similar businesses.
Gov. Kate Brown displaying a mask at a May 7, 2020 news conference. | SCREENGRAB VIA YOUTUBE/OREGONIAN/OREGONLIVE
May 13, 2021

Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday lifted the state’s mask and social distancing mandate for fully vaccinated Oregonians in "most public spaces," a decision tied to new federal guidance from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention.

However, Brown failed to clarify how the new standard would be implemented at restaurants, cafes, grocery stores and other similar venues. A state health official on Friday said retailers that want to let unmasked people onto their premises will likely need to ask for proof of vaccination. Retailers will continue to have the option of requiring masks, the state said. The Oregon Health Authority is developing rules for these new protocols.

The Kroger supermaket chain, which operates Fred Meyer stores, said Friday it will continue to require masks in stores, while Walmart announced it will not require masks for fully vaccinated customers.

Gov. Jay Inslee also lifted the mask mandate in Washington state while Gov. Gavin Newsom told reporters he would do so in mid-June.

In Oregon, Brown's announcement marks a bright spot for many in the long slog out of the COVID-19 pandemic. At the same time, Oregon health officials still have to increase the vaccination rate. Brown wants at least 70% of adults 16 and older to have at least one dose for other restrictions to be loosened. So far, slightly more than 60% of this group is vaccinated with at least one dose. Brown has said Oregon must reach the 70% target in order for COVID-19 restrictions to largely lift, such as capacity limits for restaurants, bars, retail outlets and entertainment venues. 

The new CDC guidance, which comes more than a year after Americans were first told to cover their mouths and noses, applies only to people who have been fully vaccinated with both doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines, which are spaced several weeks apart, or the one-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine. The CDC guidance doesn’t address the complexities of how retailers or other businesses can distinguish between vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals. Rather, it simply states that from a health perspective, fully vaccinated people don’t need to wear masks or distance in most situations.

“Starting today, Oregon will be following this guidance, which only applies to fully-vaccinated individuals,” Brown said in a statement Thursday. “That means Oregonians who are fully vaccinated no longer need to wear masks or social distance in most public spaces.”

People are considered to be fully inoculated two weeks after their last shot. The guidance means that even if someone has recovered from COVID-19 and has natural immunity against it, they would still have to get vaccinated to go mask free.

The new guidance reflects the CDC's confidence in the effectiveness of the vaccines. The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines have been shown to be 95% effective, and the Johnson and Johnson dose prevented 74% of infections in its U.S. trials.

Vaccination "Verification" Will Be Required

Restaurants, cafes, grocery stores or other retail businesses will have the option of waiving mask and distancing requirements "after verifying vaccination status," Brown said. Brown's announcement didn't address how people will know whether someone in a "public space" who is not wearing a mask is fully vaccinated, or whether that person is flouting the rules.

In short, the federal guidelines say it is safe for fully vaccinated people to participate in a variety of outdoor and indoor activities without wearing a mask or maintaining six feet of distance. The activities include outdoor gatherings with unvaccinated people and crowded outdoor events like concerts, parades and sports events. Indoor activities are also on the list. Fully vaccinated people don’t need masks and they don't need to worry about social distancing for going to movie theaters, attending full-capacity worship services, and going to restaurants, gyms and indoor gatherings with people from different households. 

There are still exceptions in the federal guidance, though. Vaccinated people still should to wear masks when using public transportation or on an airplane, and when they're in hospitals, health care clinics, correctional facilities and long-term care facilities. 

The federal guidance is not mandatory for states and local jurisdictions. They have the option to put stricter rules in place if they desire. 

Brown said the Oregon Health Authority will provide updated rules for businesses, employers and others that allow them the “option of lifting mask and physical distancing requirements after verifying vaccination status.”

“Some businesses may prefer to simply continue operating under the current ( mask and distancing requirements) rather than worrying about verifying vaccination status, and that’s fine,” Brown said.

Capacity Restrictions Still In Force

Oregon businesses continue to face restrictions. For example, Oregon has a county risk-level framework that assigns each county a ranking based on COVID-19 infection level. Counties with a high-risk ranking face restrictions, such as capacity limits for restaurants, bars, retail outlets and entertainment venues. Brown has said each county can drop to the lowest risk ranking, which allows more capacity in businesses, when 65% of all eligible adults 16 and older in that county get vaccinated with at least one dose. 

Restrictions also will lift statewide when Oregon’s vaccination rate for adults 16 and older reaches 70%, which could happen in mid-June. At that point, the county risk level framework will end, even if counties haven’t reached the 65% target. 

Those targets will remain in place, even with the eased restrictions. On Friday, Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist, said restaurants and businesses still must abide by capacity limits based on the county risk framework. 

So, a business cannot circumvent the capacity restrictions and only choose to serve people who are fully vaccinated. 

“What we‘re not saying is that businesses can only choose to serve vaccinated people,” Sidelinger said. 

Sidelinger said the state’s still working on the specifics of new rules but in general, they likely would entail the business looking at a person’s vaccination card, photo of a vaccination card or a record on a cell phone. 

In a press call with reporters, Sidelinger faced a barrage of questions about how the state would enforce the new rule and whether the move opened the door for scofflaws -- businesses or customers -- to get around mask mandates. 

State Hopes People Won't Lie About Vaccination Status

Asked about an unvaccinated customer who lies about their vaccination status in order to go unmasked, Sidelinger said those people would put themselves and others at risk in that situation.
“We hope that people take the steps they need,” Sidelinger said, adding that getting the vaccine is crucial.  He said his hope is that “no one out there is dishonest.”

Sidelinger said the new system will not run contrary to health privacy rules -- such as the federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, commonly called HIPAA. This is because a person who wants to be unmasked and not practice social distancing in a business is making a voluntary choice to provide their vaccination record, Sidelinger said.

Brown said schools will continue to require students and staff to wear masks and social distance this year.

The announcement came on the first day that adolescents 12 to 15 years old were eligible to receive the Pfizer vaccine. Medical professionals at the Oregon Convention Center, the state's largest vaccine site, vaccinated just over 1,730 adolescents on Thursday, including about 740 who walked in, a news release said. In all, providers at the Northeast Portland site vaccinated 5,830 people. The clinic, run by Kaiser Permanente, Legacy Health, Providence Health & Services and Oregon Health & Science University, has scheduled first-dose appointments for 5,340 children aged 12 to 15 through May 20.

OHSU also released a statement, saying it vaccinated nearly 200 adolescents on Thursday at Hillsboro Stadium and has scheduled appointments for another 2,800 children from 12 to 15 through the end of the month at the stadium, Portland International Airport and in the Multnomah Pavilion on its Southwest Portland campus. Anyone younger than 18 needs parental consent.

The governor urged Oregonians to continue to get vaccinated if they are eligible and have not yet had a shot. 

“Oregonians now have a choice of how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19: Either get vaccinated, or continue wearing a mask and following physical distancing requirements,” Brown said. “The new CDC guidance makes clear that vaccines are the best tool to protect yourself, and everyone around you. Vaccines are also the fastest way to get back to doing the things we all  love, and to returning to a sense of normalcy.”

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