Face masks will soon be mandatory in indoor public spaces in Oregon's major population centers, Gov. Kate Brown has declared.
Gov. Brown announced that face masks will be required in the tri-county area — Multnomah, Washington, Clackamas counties — and adjacent Hood River County, plus Marion and Polk counties, as well as Lincoln County on the coast on Wednesday, June 17.
The mask mandate begins one week later on Wednesday, June 24. From then on, masks must be worn in indoor public spaces — including grocery stores and other busineses serving the general public.
The rule does not apply outdoors.
Enforcement of the new rule, including potential criminal penalties or fines, were not specificed in a press release issued by Brown.
"This is one of the issues they are going to be discussing," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury during a media briefing.
Multnomah County is now set to reopen June 19 under Phase 1 of the three-tiered plan. Marion, Polk and Hood River counties will transition to Phase 2 on Friday, June 19, as well.
Moving foward, the tri-county area will be treated as a "single unit" for reopening decisions, as will Marion and Polk counties, which both contain parts of Salem. That means the tri-county area cannot enter Phase 2 until 21 days after June 19 — in other words, July 10 at the earliest.
"The next few weeks will be difficult, and we will be monitoring the data regularly. We are much better prepared than we were in early March," Gov. Brown said. "We have increased PPE, much more widespread testing, and many more contact tracers."
Brown said her decision was made in consultation with the Oregon Health Authority, business leaders, elected officials and independent experts.
"Our entire ability to reopen and stay open is dependent on whether each of us follows basic health and safety protections," she said. "Stay home if you feel sick, wear a face covering, keep six feet of distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands regularly. We truly are all in this together."
Lawmakers urged for mask rules
Brown's Wednesday orders follow in line with a recent plea from lawmakers.
A letter penned by 24 state representatives and senators implored the Multnomah County Board of Commissioners to require people cover their face while visiting an indoor public space — including businesses serving the general population.
"We know that front-line workers (many of whom are BIPOC and low socio-economic) who directly interact with the public are especially at-risk when customers and clients don't wear face coverings," the letter says, using an acronym for black, indigenous or people of color. "More widespread use of face coverings will help keep them safe."
The five-page letter, dated Wednesday, put new pressure on Multnomah County's top executive Kafoury, who had previously explained away the lack of a local mask order by saying that many communities of color don't feel safe covering their face — and may be perceived differently when doing so.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran, however, had pushed strongly for a mask requirement.
"As we are looking toward reopening, it is even more essential that we do everything we can to mitigate the risk of transmission of COVID," Meieran, who is a practicing emergency room physician, told the Pamplin Media Group. "It's the right thing to do."
Brown hit the pause button on reopenings statewide on June 12, leaving Multnomah County in limbo as the only county not to enter Phase 1, which allows food and drink service until 10 p.m. and reopens barber shops and salons, as long as stylists keep lists of all customers.
Before that "yellow light" flicked on, six counties were in Phase 1, while another 29 had entered into Phase 2.
"Businesses that are doing the right thing in protecting workers and others by requiring customers/clients to wear face coverings are put at a disadvantage to those that are not doing the right thing," lawmakers stated in the letter to Multnomah County commissioners. "Knowing our constituents as we do, we believe that a strong majority will support and appreciate your taking this step."
The letter is signed by state Sen. Ginny Burdick, Rep. Janelle Bynum, Sen. Michael Dembrow, Rep. Maxine Dexter, Rep. Margaret Doherty, Sen. Shemia Fagan, Sen. Lew Frederick, Rep. Chris Gorsek, Rep. Diego Hernandez, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, Rep. Tina Kotek, Rep. Akasha Lawrence Spence, Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, Rep. Rob Nosse, Rep. Carla Piluso, Rep. Karin Power, Rep. Jeff Reardon, Rep. Andrea Salinas, Rep. Tawna Sanchez, Sen. Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, Sen. Kathleen Taylor, Sen. Rob Wagner, Rep. Barbara Smith Warner and Rep. Anna Williams.
Other local reactions
Kathryn Harrington, who chairs the Washington County Board of Commissioners, acknowledged Brown's decision to link the tri-county area and the fact that it pushes back the soonest date that her county, Oregon's second-most populous, could enter Phase 2 to July 10.
"It is important to remember that this virus knows no jurisdictional boundaries and could infect anyone who does not take the precautions our public health and medical professionals have been recommending for the past four months," Harrington said in a statement Wednesday evening reacting to the announcement. "We are especially concerned that vulnerable and high-risk individuals can be further exposed and that there could be more hospitalizations and deaths."
Harrington said the virus "remains a serious threat" and urged Washington County residents to continue precautions like frequent handwashing, wearing a face mask in public and limiting close contact with people outside their immediate household.
Clackamas County was the first of the three major Portland-area counties to enter Phase 1, late last month. County commissioners had been discussing plans to go into Phase 2.
Jim Bernard, Harrington's counterpart in Clackamas County, said in a statement he knows some Clackamas County residents will be disappointed by the delay.
"Yet, we cannot ignore the increase in cases of COVID-19 and the alarming projections of how many more people would get sick" if Clackamas County were to move into Phase 2 on its own, Bernard added.
"The health of Clackamas County residents remains our top priority," Bernard stated, adding, "We believe that by working together, our entire community can beat this pandemic."
Editor's note: This story has been updated with statements from the chairs of Washington and Clackamas counties.
By Zane Sparling
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