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Oregon residents decry proposed ‘permanent’ mask mandate

January 21, 2022 GMT

PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Hundreds of Oregon residents claimed government overreach on Thursday, as officials at the state’s health authority consider indefinitely extending the current indoor mask requirement due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Oregon Health Authority held a public hearing about the proposed “permanent” mask rule for public indoor spaces, regardless of people’s vaccination status. Although the word “permanent” is used, officials say the rule can be rescinded when it is deemed “no longer necessary” by health authority officials.

However, currently there is no set expiration date or specific metrics outlining when the rule could be lifted if OHA makes it permanent.

Any person who violates the proposed rule will be subject to civil penalties of up to a $500 fine per day per violation.

More than 350 people — ranging from stay-at-home parents, registered nurses, a speech language pathologist, teachers and business owners in rural and urban areas — attended the virtual public hearing and vehemently opposed the rule.

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“We don’t believe that you’re going to take into account the best interest of Oregonians and we don’t believe that you’re going to repeal this,” Elizabeth Moore, a Portland resident, said during the hearing. “I think it’s high time at this stage of the pandemic... to let Oregonians be adults and make decisions for themselves.”

Many people testifying cited studies, anecdotes and quotes against masking. Most were frustrated and some threatened officials.

“Remove this and don’t push it through,” said Angela Todd, the chief communications officer for a grass-roots group called Free Oregon. “And I promise you, if you push this through, we’re coming for you.”

Oregon Health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say wearing masks indoors can help reduce the spread of COVID, especially as the highly contagious omicron variant is causing a spike in cases.

The proposed permanent rule has emerged to address a technicality in state law that requires current temporary to expire in early February — after the projected peak of the omicron wave.

The temporary rule was adopted in August 2021 in response to the rapid spread of the delta variant. Oregon law gives the health authority the power to implement public health rules such as the mask mandate, but the agency is only allowed to leave temporary rules in place for 180 days.

“Up until now, masking was a temporary measure re-examined and renewed every 180 days. This puts a forcing function of time into each mask mandate requiring you to look at current evidence and hear public opinion,” Aden Nepom, a West Linn resident, said in opposition.

This is not the first time there has been public outcry over a “permanent” mask rule.

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In May 2021, Michael Wood, the administrator of the state’s department of Occupational Safety and Health, indefinitely extended a workplace rule requiring masks and social distancing in all businesses.

The Oregon Health Authority is scheduled to hold two more administrative rulemaking hearings on Monday. The first will be on a masking requirement in schools and COVID-19 vaccination requirements for teachers and school staff. The second will be on masking and vaccination requirements in health care settings.

Oregon has had some of the most stringent COVID-19 restrictions and safety measures throughout the pandemic. State officials have attributed the state’s success in lower COVID-19 case counts, hospitalizations and deaths — when compared to other states — to the safety measures.

At least nine other states — including California, New York and Washington — require most people to wear masks in indoor public places, whether or not they have been vaccinated against COVID-19.

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Cline is a corps member for The Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.