No mandate from county yet, but masks strongly encouraged
On June 24, seven Oregon counties adopted a mandate for their residents to wear face coverings in public to prevent and slow the spread of COVID-19. While it is in a similar situation to some of the counties on the list, Yamhill County was not included in the governor's mandate and it has no plans to issue a mandate of its own in the near future.
Chairman Casey Kulla said the Yamhill County Board of Commissioners have not discussed a so-called "mask mandate" and it isn't on their agenda as of now. Still, Kulla said he's received messages from residents who are under the impression that the county is about to enact such a mandate or discuss it at an upcoming Board of Commissioners' meeting. That is not the case and Kulla is still trying to figure out the reasons why Yamhill County was among those not included in the governor's order.
"I do not know why the seven counties that were included in the governor's face covering requirements were included, while other counties like Yamhill were excluded," Kulla said. "The only thing I could theorize was that all those counties were moving into a new phase, but I still haven't heard any reasoning or justification as to why we're among the 29 counties across the state not included in this mandate."
Kulla and local health officials have been in communication with the governor's office and Oregon Health Authority to find out how best to proceed under the mask order. Guidance for Yamhill County residents still encourages but does not mandate the use of face coverings when in public spaces and urges residents to engage in proper handwashing, social distancing and contact tracing practices to slow the spread of COVID-19.
"I think our guidance will still be led by information we get from the OHA," Kulla said. "When we weren't even in Phase 1 yet, I was getting questions about a potential face covering mandate and at the time the science wasn't totally there yet. Now the science is there and we have to think about how we might go about something like this, because mandating things can sometimes backfire when issues like this are politically charged. I want to make sure our decisions as a county are grounded as much in science as possible while also recognizing the values of our community.
"If we just made decisions based solely on science, we would all never leave our house and be on lockdown until there's a reliable treatment or vaccine. The best public health decisions weigh community's values with the best available science and unless we have a clear and acute public health crisis that we know a mask mandate will alleviate, we need to provide guidance instead of a mandate."
The World Health Organization, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and OHA all strongly recommend people wear face coverings in public, regardless of the severity of the pandemic in their community. Face coverings are proven by accepted scientific studies to slow the spread of COVID-19. They reduce the risk of asymptomatic, pre-symptomatic and symptomatic people spreading the virus through coughing, sneezing, breathing or speaking.
Some people can't wear face coverings due to underlying medical conditions or disabilities, and those people are exempt from the governor's mandate in the seven listed counties while still being encouraged to social distance and stay home if they are sick. Still, many in Yamhill County and throughout the state who don't have a medical reason for not wearing a face covering are resistant to the idea, trafficking in conspiracies about the effectiveness of face coverings or the realities of the virus itself.
Kulla said he wants to make sure the county's guidance to its residents is clear and factual.
"Our public health officials are telling us that wearing face coverings reduces and slows the spread of the virus," Kulla said. "Because we don't have an effective treatment or vaccine we need to do what we can to not spread it to other people. There is so much information out there that is misleading or incorrect and I want people to make decisions based on the advice of public health experts and not a story from random sources on YouTube or Facebook."
Kulla's father lives in Lincoln County and is a staunch conservative. Kulla said an encouraging phone conversation with his dad provided a perspective that he thinks can help some of Yamhill County's more skeptical residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.
"My father was like, 'I'm very conservative,' and I said, 'yeah dad, I know,'" Kulla said with a laugh. "My dad says, 'I don't want the government ever telling me what to do in any situation, but telling people they have to wear face coverings isn't the end of the world. I don't like wearing them, but I recognize that they have a great deal of value preventing the spread of something that would kill me.' I just thought that was a great perspective to have and one that more people need to hear."
For more information on the county's guidance and response to COVID-19, visit hhs.co.yamhill.or.us/heatlh/page/covid-19-information.
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