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Business owners are happy to no longer police people on COVID-19 rules, but public health experts say risks are there.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Pablo Campos, general manager at Ridgewalker Brewing Company, left, Chats with Ian Clemons of Gaston at the brewery in Forest Grove. Both gentleman are seen mask-less after the mask requirement was lifted on June 30.A day after Oregon's COVID-19 mask requirements were lifted, Jeff Farrar was realizing how normal the rules seemed.

"It feels weird," said Farrar, co-owner of Ridgewalker Brewing Company in Forest Grove, about not needing to think about masks. "It's like I'm doing something wrong. It's like I'm not wearing underwear."

From a business standpoint, Farrar said he was happy the state ended COVID-19 restrictions.

Masking and other requirements put business owners in the difficult regulatory space where employees had to enforce politically charged rules that — masking aside — often changed.

"It's a breath of fresh air," Farrar said. "I will always say we're not here to be political. We're here to sell good beer, we're here to provide a fun experience."

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Logan Beardsley, assistant manager at Ridgewalker Brewing Company, makes a lunch order at the brewery in downtown Forest Grove.It's nice for servers to not have to think about whether someone was wearing a mask as soon as they walked in the door, Farrar said.

He added that the possibility of conflict over mask wearing led at least one of his employees to not want to work anymore.

But while masks aren't required anymore, public health officials don't want people to think the pandemic is over.

They say people who aren't fully vaccinated should wear a mask indoors around strangers or people whose vaccination status isn't known.

"We want to emphasize the value of wearing masks, especially for those who are not vaccinated or who have health issues that put them at risk for serious complications from any respiratory illness," reads a statement from Washington County announcing the lifted restrictions. "The pandemic is not over. If you are not vaccinated, you are not protected from getting sick from COVID-19."

With current estimates putting the Delta variant of COVID-19 at 50-60% more contagious than the Alpha variant, there's concern it could spread rapidly through unvaccinated populations, said Dr. Christina Baumann, health officer for Washington County Department of Health and Human Services. The Alpha variant, which first emerged in the United Kingdom late last year, was more contagious than the first strain of COVID-19.

Baumann said some estimates show that vaccines, including Pfizer and AstraZeneca (not available in the United States), are only slightly less effective against the Delta variant at preventing illness than the original strain.

Data from a recent study in Israel, however, found that the Pfizer vaccine was only 64% effective at preventing infection against the Delta variant. The vaccine was still 94% effective at preventing serious illness.

Only seven cases of the Delta variant have been detected in the six-county hospital preparedness Region 1, which includes Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Multnomah, Tillamook and Washington counties. Not all positive cases of COVID-19 are tested for which variant it is, however, Baumann said.

The concern is that "a good proportion of people are still not vaccinated," Baumann said, pointing to the more than 270,000 people in the county who hadn't received a shot as of Friday, July 2.

Of that number, there are 130,000 people 16 and older who are eligible to get any vaccine but still haven't.

Asked whether or not she thinks the removal of mask requirements sends the wrong message about the current stage of the pandemic to unvaccinated people, Baumann said she does, although she acknowledged that the restrictions have, in a sense, served their purpose.

"I think that the legal restrictions had to be lifted at some point," Baumann added. "They were put in place to buy us time initially; to protect our hospitals from being overwhelmed; to keep the numbers of people that were sick dying as low as we could keep them until we had a safe and effective vaccine."

Some restaurant owners may not act like everything is completely back to normal.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Olivia Kimmel, a bartender at Ridgewalker Brewing Company, helps customers in the lunch hour Friday, July 2."Overall, we're not going to be maximizing the amount of people in our space like we were before for a while," Farrar said. "I'm not adamant about jumping into crazy huge events that draw tons of people."

He said the pandemic has also taught us lessons and formed sanitary habits like frequent handwashing that are likely to stay long-term.

Even without the requirement in place, Farrar said many people are still walking into Ridgewalker with a mask on.

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