Is Oregon finally on the verge of entering a post-mask era—for good this time?
Monday’s announcement that the state would lift its indoor mask mandate on March 31, or perhaps sooner, depending on hospital capacity, made it feel that way, at least on first blush, and barring the spread of yet another immunity-evading variant, which could catch everyone off guard.
But in practice, that might not be the case.
Instead, decisions on masking will revert to local public health authorities, school boards and private businesses, all of whom will have to grapple with an intense and complicated stew of decision-making pressures that’s likely to result in a patchwork of regulations that will vary from county to county.
Let’s break it down.
What Won’t Change
Public transportation, which is covered under federal law.That means that masks will continue on buses, trains, streetcars and airplanes, until the federal government says otherwise. The current regulation is due to expire March 18, but could be extended.
Hospitals, too, were explicitly left out of Monday’s announcement from the Oregon Health Authority, given the high concentration of immunocompromised and vulnerable people gathered in such settings, and emerging evidence that well-fitted surgical masks can offer a meaningful layer of protection.
What Might Change
Required mask usage in indoor settings, like grocery stores, movie theaters, gyms, restaurants and shops. This is likely to vary by county, according to public health guidance, and also by business, according to the preferences of owners.Some left-leaning jurisdictions in the country, including King County, Washington and Chicago, have mandated that proof of vaccination is needed to patronize these businesses, but Multnomah County has not followed suit, and neither have other Oregon counties.
In the absence of vaccination mandates, and with the statewide lifting of the indoor mask mandate on the horizon, some restaurants and fitness studios are already requiring proof of vaccination for entry, and that could expand further. But that also means weighing the loss of some potential customers, a tricky calculation for businesses already buffeted by two years of pandemic uncertainty.
County public health leaders in Multnomah, Washington, and Clackamas Counties will be meeting to iron out details for the weeks ahead, spokespeople for all three counties said Tuesday. Dr. Jennifer Vines, the tri-county public health officer, has told Portland Monthly in the past that she favors an upfront, metrics-based approach to lifting regulations, and has singled out testing positivity—currently at 11.2 percent in Multnomah County, the second lowest in the state—as a useful guideline. (As a comparison: Los Angeles County public health officials have taken a similarly data-guided approach, saying that indoor masking can lift only after two straight weeks when case counts remain at or below 50 for every 100,000 people.)
Vines has also said she’s conscious that even as COVID-19-related hospitalizations recede, procedures delayed as a result of the pandemic could still clog hospitals; masks through the winter help to reduce transmission of season flus and keep hospital admissions down, she has said.
What Might Not Change (Yet)
Schools, among the most contentious battlegrounds over masking, will technically be permitted to lift the universal mask mandate on March 31. But the Oregon Department of Education made it clear in a memo to schools leaders on Monday that doing so will carry consequences and be time-consuming. “It is clear that masks work,” the agency wrote. “Universal use of masks have helped keep Oregonians safe throughout the pandemic.”
(A small but growing group of doctors and researchers has begun questioning the efficacy of masking at schools, and saying it impedes children’s ability to learn to read and process facial cues while placing a particular burden on special needs students and those learning English as a second language. The Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, though, have continued to recommend universal masking in schools.)
After March 31, Oregon schools that chose to lift the mask mandate will no longer be eligible for “test-to-stay,” which allows unvaccinated students and staff to remain in school so long as they test negative on rapid tests twice in the course of five days, even if they were in close contact with someone who has tested positive, so long as they were wearing their masks.
Without test-to-stay, schools will have to resume laborious contact tracing, ODE superintendent Colt Gill warned, “likely resulting in more days out of school for unvaccinated students and staff, and more classroom and school closures due to staffing constraints.”
Oregon does have a vaccination requirement for school employees, but it does not currently extend to booster shots, which have offered better protection against the Omicron variant. And vaccination rates among students vary wildly from district to district.
State officials say test-to-stay on its own is not enough to curb the spread of COVID-19, especially given the documented transmissibility of the Omicron variant.
“Without universal masking in place, individuals otherwise subject to quarantine are very likely to have been infected during their exposure and are very likely to go on to infect others,” OHA senior medical health advisor Dr. Melissa Sutton said Tuesday. “Testing is an imperfect tool in that it does not detect all cases—therefore, test to stay should only be used for low-risk exposures in K-12 settings with all mitigation layers in place including universal masking.”
One unknown: if public health authorities plan to modify the definition of what constitutes a “close contact” for a school student—currently, within six feet of someone who has tested positive for COVID, for at least 15 minutes, while unmasked.
Additionally, school districts that seek to go mask-optional may face pushback from labor unions. In Portland, the district’s agreement with its teachers specifies that “PPS shall comply with the statewide and Multnomah County mask mandate” and that the agreement is for “the remainder of the 2021-2022 school year.” The district retains the flexibility to change its mask guidance, but its educator labor unions could request to bargain over any changes, Human Resources chief Sharon Reese has said.
What Could Change Back
Well, if history is any guide, the mask mandate itself could return if hospitalizations again rise precipitously and catch us off guard. That’s what happened to Oregon last summer—a brief relaxation of masking, followed by the rise of the Delta variant and what proved to be the state’s worst months for COVID related deaths.
“Per usual, we will continue to follow data on the spread of COVID-19 in Oregon, examine the tools available to reduce spread and re-examine guidance as appropriate,” state epidemiologist Dr. Dean E. Sidelinger said Tuesday.