Oregon's Indoor Mask Mandate Will Lift on March 19

That's 11 days earlier than previously announced.

By Julia Silverman February 24, 2022

Oregonians can remove their masks in indoor public spaces on Saturday, March 19, 11 days earlier than previously announced, the governor’s office and the Oregon Health Authority jointly announced on Thursday.

That change will apply to public and private schools as well; previously, school districts were told that they would need to wait until March 31 before lifting any masking rules, regardless of whether the mandate was lifted beforehand for any indoor spaces.

The date revision was sparked by plummeting COVID-19-related hospitalizations, state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said via a pre-recorded statement provided to the media. In the last 16 days, COVID-19-related hospitalization numbers have fallen by nearly 50 percent, or an average of more than 30 a day.

That puts the state on track to drop to around 400 hospital beds filled with COVID-19 patients by next Tuesday, March 1, or nearly three weeks before the indoor mandate will actually lift, despite the state setting 400 hospitalizations as the key metric earlier this month.

The March 19 date will make Oregon either the 48th or 49th state in the country to lift its indoor masking rules, depending upon whether Washington sticks with a previously announced March 21st date and when or if Hawaii decides to lift its own mandate. Other states led by Democrats that still had indoor masking mandates either lifted their mask mandates earlier this month or announced dates within the next week to do so, including California, Maryland, Illinois, Nevada, Delaware, Rhode Island, and New Mexico.

Sidelinger said Thursday that waiting until March 19 will give the state “time to thoughtfully prepare for the transition” and gives school districts and the Oregon Department of Education time to adjust guidelines to match this new phase of the pandemic.

He added that the state “appreciates and acknowledges” that lifting the mask mandate will cause anxiety for some Oregonians, and said that masking is still highly recommended for the unvaccinated, the elderly, and the immunocompromised, among other populations.

Schools, which have been in the crosshairs of the mask mandate wars, can expect updated guidance from the state by early next week, Oregon Department of Education director Colt Gill said Thursday. He did not offer specifics, but said the agency would revise “quarantines, testing and contact tracing,” requirements. A handful of districts around Oregon, including Tigard-Tualatin in the metro area, have already announced plans to go mask optional as of March 31; others, including Portland and Beaverton, have been waiting for updated guidance from public health officials and the state education department.

Meanwhile, this week, the Centers for Disease Control has said that it too is revising its guidance.  Under the CDC’s definitions, Oregon and nearly all of the rest of the country is classified as being under a “high” level of community transmission of COVID-19, at which safety protocols like indoor masking are strongly recommended. But given both how transmissible Omicron has proven, and how effective vaccinations have been at keeping infected people out of the hospital, the agency is said to be moving toward a new, hospitalization-based metric instead.

One continuing caveat: The state lifting its indoor masking mandate does not mean that every county or business or school district will automatically follow suit; instead, a patchwork of regulations is more likely. And the March 19 date does allow time for the state's new optional and voluntary digital vaccination proof system to launch as scheduled on March 8; it's designed to allow businesses to more easily verify the vaccination status of customers, which could take on heightened importance for some in the absence of a mask mandate. 

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