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Oregon to lift masking rules March 19

Signs remind visitors that masks are required at Prescott Elementary school, Feb. 8, 2022.
Kristyna Wentz-Graff
Signs remind visitors that masks are required at Prescott Elementary school, Feb. 8, 2022.

Oregon’s masking rules now have a firm expiration date: March 19.

As COVID-19 infections and hospitalizations plummet across the state, the Oregon Health Authority will lift requirements for masks in indoor public spaces and schools earlier than expected; the mandate had been scheduled to lapse by March 31.

At the same time, Gov. Kate Brown announced Thursday that she will rescind her COVID-19 state of emergency declaration on April 1. By then the declaration will have lingered for more than two years, allowing the governor to take unprecedented actions to stem the spread of the virus.

Taken together, the moves are the most significant curtailment of COVID-19 restrictions that Oregon has seen since the arrival of the virus in March 2020. Brown previously revoked masking and distancing requirements last summer as cases dropped, only to reinstate them weeks later as the delta variant of the virus took hold.

Despite those fluctuations, the governor has repeatedly extended the emergency declaration that has allowed her to wield broad powers. Brown cautioned Thursday that her decision to lift it now was not a sign Oregon is in the clear.

“Lifting Oregon’s COVID-19 emergency declaration today does not mean that the pandemic is over, or that COVID-19 is no longer a significant concern,” Brown said in a written statement. “But, as we have shown through the delta and omicron surges, as we learn to live with this virus, and with so many Oregonians protected by safe and effective vaccines, we can now protect ourselves, our friends, and our families without invoking the extraordinary emergency authorities that were necessary at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Oregon’s current masking requirements are not authorized under Brown’s emergency order. They are public health rules put into place by the OHA. The agency said in a statement of its own Thursday that modeling suggests Oregon will see pre-omicron levels of the virus by March 20. The OHA is still recommending that people at high-risk from the coronavirus continue to wear masks in public settings.

“We are able to take this important step, earlier than anticipated, because of the collective diligence and the shared sacrifice that people in Oregon have demonstrated in getting vaccinated, wearing masks and limiting their gatherings,” state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger said in a statement.

In the last month, new reported COVID infections have dropped by more than 80%, according to the state healthy agency. More important for Oregon’s overtaxed healthcare system, hospitalizations are down nearly 50% since peaking last month, the agency said.

Many of the same trends are playing out nationwide, and a growing list of state and local governments have announced an end to masking rules in recent days. A mask requirement in Washington state is scheduled to lapse on March 21.

In Oregon, restrictions put in place by Brown and health officials have been among the strictest in the nation, but have also helped Oregon record fewer deaths per capita than many other states. Nevertheless, the restrictions have been deeply controversial in many more rural parts of the state.

This is a developing story. Watch for updates.
Copyright 2022 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart covers Oregon politics and government for OPB. Before barging onto the radio in 2018, he spent more than a decade as a newspaper reporter—much of that time reporting on city government for the Portland Mercury. He’s also had stints covering chicanery in Southwest Missouri, the wilds of Ohio in Ohio, and all things Texas on Capitol Hill.