Governor Kate Brown today announced a return to an indoor mask mandate, statewide, regardless of vaccination status.

Only six weeks or so ago, Oregon was one of the last states in the country to remove Covid-19 related restrictions.

Now, the state is among the first in the country—joining just Louisiana, Nevada, and Hawaii, plus Washington, DC—to return to an indoor mask mandate beginning Friday, August 13, regardless of vaccination status.

Governor Kate Brown said Wednesday that her hope had been to return to a more “traditional” public health operating procedure, with local government officials calling the shots on whether to reimpose Covid-related restrictions based on transmission in their communities.

But in the interim, the Delta variant took off statewide, and now the state is facing a potential shortage of critical care beds in hospitals from Portland to Pendleton, Medford to Ontario, even as most local government officials—save for in highly vaccinated Multnomah County—have declined to reimpose restrictions that might have curbed the spread of the virus.

On Wednesday, under repeated questioning, Brown and other state health officials all struck a somewhat defensive note about not taking statewide action even sooner.

“As the pandemic has gone on, Oregonians’ receptivity to warnings about what will happen if we don’t do certain things—it’s been less and less effective to warn about what’s coming in the future, versus seeing something, what’s here in front of us now,” said Oregon Health Authority Director Patrick Allen. “Even now, the actions that the governor is taking are being characterized by some as oppressive. Had we tried to maintain them a month ago, with the reality on the ground being what it was, we would have had a huge problem trying to get some people to follow them.”

Allen noted that amidst the cavalcade of terrible news about the Delta variant’s progression in Oregon, vaccinations have ticked up significantly in the last two weeks, particularly in low-vaccination counties that have been hit the hardest by the Delta wave, including Jackson County in Southern Oregon and Umatilla County in Eastern Oregon. 

Brown would not rule out further steps that could be taken to curb the spread of the virus in upcoming weeks, such as capacity limits at major events like the upcoming Pendleton Round-Up, or college football games. She also said that the state was not moving forward with a unified “vaccine verification” system “at this point in time,” though she offered warm words for coalitions of businesses that are banding together on their own to enforce vaccine mandates for entry, like bars and restaurants in Portland.

Following Gov. Jay Inslee in Washington, Brown announced that state employees, except for those with medical exemptions, will have to be vaccinated. But unlike Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, she said she won’t mandate public school teachers to get the vaccine or get tested weekly, a decision that will be left up to local superintendents.

Allen and state epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger did not offer a specific timeline or metrics for when and how the indoor mask mandate might be lifted, but said it would be re-evaluated as the strain on local hospitals meaningfully recedes. They estimated that 80 percent compliance with the indoor mask mandate should significantly help to reduce the need for hospital beds.

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