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Oregon officials release new rules for masks, approve five counties for lowered restrictions

The Oregon Health Authority added some clarification Tuesday about new mask rules that were announced last week. As health officials announced last week, people who are fully vaccinated will no longer be required to wear a mask indoors, but officials clarified that only applies in situations where individuals’ vaccination status is checked.

Fully vaccinated people are still required to wear a mask in a number of places including; health care settings, schools, and on trains, planes, and public transportation.

The new details, included in the Oregon Health Authority’s interim guidance for fully vaccinated individuals, take effect today.

Businesses and venue operators can establish more restrictive mask policies at their own discretion. OHA also announced that mask requirements no longer apply to anyone who is outdoors.

“Masks continue to save lives and protect people who are not vaccinated,” OHA director Patrick Allen said on Tuesday. “However, last week’s announcement from the CDC emphasizes the point that safe and effective vaccines are the very best way to protect people from getting and spreading COVID. That’s why it’s safer for life to look more like normal for people who are fully vaccinated. And why people who haven’t had a chance to get vaccinated should do so as soon as they can.”

Oregon’s statewide mask mandate technically remains in effect in indoor environments — but it now includes a long list of exceptions and special situations.

All businesses, places of employment, and faith institutions are required to enforce the state’s mask mandate unless they establish a new policy of checking for proof of vaccination status for every individual who enters.

Customers, employees, or congregants who can show proof of vaccination would then be allowed to enter without a mask.

Jason Brandt, the president and CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, said the guidance creates a fresh dilemma for service industry businesses that have found it hard to enforce the state’s mask mandate when customers refuse to comply.

“We’re talking about businesses being in a more challenging environment where they have to determine how much they want to act as the vaccination police or not,” Brandt said.

Brandt believes that most restaurants and hotels will maintain their current mask requirement for all customers, rather than trying to identify and exclude people who haven’t been vaccinated.

Per the state’s guidelines, people must wear a mask when entering or moving around a restaurant but can remove it when they are actively eating and drinking, whether they are vaccinated or not.

Brandt said businesses have little incentive to adopt a complicated new vaccine screening policy that could irritate part of their clientele — and change soon as more Oregonians are vaccinated. Gov. Kate Brown has promised to reopen most of the state’s economy in June, if the state reaches a target of 70% of Oregonians having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

“Please have patience and grace for restaurant workers who are doing everything they can to provide you with an enjoyable dining experience,” Brandt said. “And number two, let’s all do our part to encourage our friends and family to get vaccinated and put this dark chapter behind us.”

Oregon Business and Industry also expressed concerns about the practicality of requiring businesses to verify the vaccination status of members of the public.

“Our top priority has always been public safety, which not only includes stopping the spread of COVID but also minimizing potential conflict between business owners, their employees, and members of the public. We hope that is a consideration,” said Sandra McDonough, president & CEO of OBI, in a written statement.

Oregon public health officials originally announced last week that Oregonians who are fully vaccinated mostly do not need to wear masks.

Gov. Kate Brown on Thursday said the state would be following the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance on mask requirements, meaning that fully vaccinated adults would be able to safely resume indoor and outdoor activities without masks or distancing, including large gatherings, with exceptions that were further clarified today.

Last Friday, Dr. Dean Sidelinger said Oregonians have two choices: either get vaccinated or continue wearing face coverings and following physical distancing. Sidelinger suggested at the time that businesses might need to check the vaccination status of customers, but said details would come in later guidance.

The new rules led to more questions than answers for Oregon’s business owners and their customers.

Gov. Kate Brown announced Tuesday that Benton, Deschutes, Hood River, Lincoln and Washington counties are leading the state in vaccinating their residents against COVID-19. The five counties are now eligible to move to the “Lower Risk” level in the state’s risk level framework on Friday.

As of Monday, the five counties — in five different regions of the state — had vaccinated over 65% of residents 16 or older with at least one dose, the minimum requirements to move down to the lower risk level. Each county must also submit its plan to close vaccine equity gaps, according to the governor’s office, a requirement that the five counties also completed.

Multnomah County was not approved for a move into “lower risk” in spite of meeting the 65% vaccination target. State health officials said the county didn’t meet the equity plan requirement.

“A county needs to meet two criteria to move to low risk: vaccinate more than 65 percent of people age 16 or older and submit a plan to close vaccination rate disparities in the county,” said OHA communications director Robb Cowie in an email to OPB. “Multnomah County has met the vaccination rate threshold, but they did not ask to move to low risk or submit an equity plan for state review.”

According to the OHA dashboard, many counties remain far away from the 65% target, including 20 counties that have vaccinated less than half of their eligible population.

Again, the bar for COVID-19 restrictions to be lifted is a bit higher at the state level than for individual counties: 70% of people statewide, versus 65% for counties.

“We still have some work to do to reach our 70% goal, but I am confident we can get there in June and return Oregon to a sense of normalcy,” Gov. Brown said.

Related: As the mask mandate ends, what’s next for Oregonians

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting

Amelia Templeton, Jeff Thompson