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As Oregon Reopens, More Masks Required, Certain Restrictions In Place Through September

May 7, 2020

Gov. Kate Brown released more details of her three-phase plan for reopening businesses on Thursday that includes new requirements for masks in public and a set of criteria that counties have to meet to peel back coronavirus restrictions.

Employees working in businesses where physical distancing can’t be maintained will be required to wear facial masks but the state won’t mandate their use for customers. 

The use of masks is just one element of Brown’s larger framework for Phase 1 of beginning to reopen Oregon businesses and public spaces. Her plan puts the Oregon Health Authority in charge of evaluating when counties or regions can begin reopening and monitoring their progress. It acknowledges that Oregon is likely to experience more cases as shops, salons and other businesses reopen and includes contingencies to reclose certain sectors and areas if new virus outbreaks climb above prescribed levels.

"We now have the opportunity of rebuilding a safe and strong Oregon," Brown said at a news conference. But she cautioned that social distancing, face masks and hand washing will remain part of life for months to come.

Though the plan puts Oregon in a pool with a number of states nationwide that are lifting some restrictions, Brown is still moving cautiously. Concerts, conventions, festivals and other large gatherings will be out of the question at least through September, her office said. 

Her plan “strongly” recommends that customers in high-density businesses wear masks -- and says businesses can require them -- and asks the public to mask up in any indoor public space where six feet of physical distance can’t be maintained.

Individual Oregon counties can petition the governor’s office starting Friday to begin reopening if they have had five or fewer reported cases of coronavirus infection. If approved, limited reopening of certain businesses could begin as early as May 15.

Three key elements of any approved reopening plan will include a declining COVID-19 prevalence, as measured by patients turning up at emergency departments with flu-like symptoms; a minimum testing regiment; and, a “culturally and linguistically competent” contract tracing system comprised of at least 15 tracers per 100,000 population, and the ability to trace 95% of contacts within 24 hours.

Counties must have hotel rooms or other space available for people who test positive and need a place to self-quarantine; a 20% hospital surge capacity to handle an uptick in patients; and a 30-day supply of personal protective equipment in larger hospitals, and a 14-day supply for small and rural hospitals.

Businesses that can reopen under Phase 1 still need to ensure physical distancing of at least six feet. They include restaurants and bars, gyms and fitness centers and local gatherings. The latter category applies to groups only up to 25 where no travel is involved.

"We are not returning to business as usual," Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said at the news conference.

For example, masks will be required on public transport, Brown's chief of staff, Nik Blosser, said in a video. No details about this were released during the news conference.

Hair salons, tattoo parlors and other personal care businesses which involve close contact will have to follow a long list of requirements, including screening clients for COVID-19 symptoms, keeping a record of appointments and client contact information for 60 days in case that’s needed for contract tracers, extensive cleaning and disinfecting, creating six feet of space between clients and donning face coverings when providing services. Medical grade face masks and shields are recommended but not required. Retail stores that have been closed -- like art galleries, jewelry shops, furniture stores and boutiques -- can reopen May 15, provided they follow safety guidelines, and some child care facilities, summer school and camps will be allowed to open.

The plan stipulates that any qualifying county will remain in Phase 1 for at least 21 days before a potential move to Phase 2.

Brown's plan drew accolades from various officials. Numi Lee Griffith, patient health care advocate for OSPIRG said: “Governor Brown’s detailed plan to relax social distancing guidelines strikes the proper balance between public health capacity, economic recovery and the geographic diversity of Oregon.  We commend the governor for adopting a framework that will not permit counties to reopen without clearly demonstrating that they have the hospital, testing and contact tracing capacity necessary to contain new COVID-19 infections.

Dr. Sharon Meieran, an emergency room doctor and Multnomah County commissioner, also applauded Brown's county-by-county approach.

"We must balance risks to lives vs. livelihoods, the disparate impact the virus has had in different geographic regions and among different communities, and the populations and other characteristics unique to each county," Meieran said. 

Gina Nikkel, executive director of the Association of Oregon Counties, said officials face a difficult balancing act in building "the plane while flying it."

"I think that the governor is trying to listen to Oregonians who want to open up but also looking at the science to keep us safe," Nikkel said.

Brown has yet to finalize Phase 2 details. They will be based on data collected in Phase 1, her office said.

Phase 3 is also not clearly defined at this point, but it states that all large gatherings should be cancelled or significantly modified through at least September.

“Concerts, conventions, festivals, live audience sports won’t be possible until a reliable treatment or prevention is available,” the plan said. “It is unknown at this time when this will be.”

Metrics for consideration of re-imposing restrictions are also included in the governor’s new guidelines. They could go back into effect, for instance, if a county lacked the ability to contact 95% of a known virus carrier’s contacts within 24 hours.

Also included is evidence of increasing prevalence of COVID-19, as measured by a 5% or greater increase in incident cases over seven days. New COVID-19 hospital admissions “uptrending” over seven days could also trigger restriction re-impositions.

If any of these metrics are violated, the Oregon Health Authority “will call an immediate meeting with local public health officials for further discussion and evaluation,” according to the plan.

It's not clear how many of Oregon's 36 counties will apply on Friday to reopen but the health authority is likely to get a stack of applications.

"Not all but most counties are putting in a plan," Nikkel said. "They hope to be ready on May 15th to open."

State officials say Oregon needs 600 contact tracers, but the Oregon Health Authority only has 100, Allen said. Some counties that lack tracers can contract with Oregon State University, which has offered to help, Nikkel said. Counties are also working with their local public health officials on this requirement.

Protective gear has also been a problem, as has testing. Meieran said it's unclear how the health authority will address the need for transparency, accountability and consistency.

"If we don't have this kind of clarity now, it does worry me as we move into reopening," Meieran said. 

Officials cautioned the public to be patient as the months unfold. Life is not going to snap back to the way it was in the foreseeable future.

"We probably won’t get out of phase 2 until there’s a vaccine, which could be some time," Nikkel said. "I think we will get used to social distancing and wearing masks but we will be able to go to restaurants in limited (numbers) and go to services but it will be different."

Lynne Terry contributed to this report.