Oregon now says it will lift its indoor mask mandate on March 11 at 11:59 p.m.—nearly two years to the day that the state went into its first sustained lockdown.
Health and education officials said Monday that they did not anticipate that the date would shift any further, though the announcement came just four days after officials had announced March 19 as the new target date, after originally saying just three weeks ago that the mandates would lift on or before March 31.
What’s changed in the interim?
For starters, late last week the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued new guidance on where and when masking was recommended, based primarily on hospital capacity. Under those rules, the metro area could unmask right now, given low levels of COVID-related hospitalizations in the community. Conversely, much of Central, Southern and Eastern Oregon remains in the “red” zone, per the CDC’s new metrics, and should keep masks and other interventions in place.
Choosing the March 11 date should give COVID-related hospitalizations—which have been “dropping steeply, and far outpacing the forecasts”—time to get even lower, even in red-zone communities, said state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger on Monday. (As of Monday, 479 people were hospitalized with or for COVID-19 in Oregon, he said, almost 60 percent below the peak of the omicron surge.)
And he pointed out that in a small state like Oregon, with only one major metropolitan area, the hospital system is interconnected statewide, with patients needed specialized care often routed to Portland from rural areas.
Additionally, Sidelinger and Oregon Department of Education Director Colt Gill—who headlined the press conference, which was not attended by Gov. Kate Brown—repeated a theme they have sounded several times in the past few weeks, saying that setting the lifting of the mandate to a future date as opposed to doing it immediately will give businesses and school districts “time to create and implement local mitigation strategies,” as needed.
Even though the state has moved up its date twice now, Oregon will still be one of the last states in the country to lift its indoor mask mandate for public places, alongside Washington state, Hawaii, and Puerto Rico.
After March 11, Sidelinger says, his hope is that individual counties will consider where they stand on the CDC’s map when deciding whether to continue with masking and other interventions, or lift them. But on a practical level and given the current map, that’s unlikely—Portland, the metro area, the Columbia River Gorge and the Willamette Valley have historically been more willing in the past two years to adhere to masking, distancing, and other nonpharmaceutical interventions, while a general lack of compliance and enforcement has been higher in much of the rest of the state.
As for schools, Gill said that new guidelines from the state will be released on Wednesday to help districts make a decision about whether to go mask-optional come Monday, March 14. Portland Public Schools, the state’s largest district, has yet to tip its hand about which way it will go, but other districts in the metro area, including Hillsboro and North Clackamas, have indicated that they will lift their masking rules when allowed.