Saturday
May 8 2021
4:17 AM
banner-icon1 banner-icon2 banner-icon3

Local Oregon News

Local News Index


Previous story Oregonians continue to defy national standars by refusing to wear health masks Next story
  The rebel state speaks its mind and perhaps its conscience   Oregon department of Occupational Safety and Health administrator weights in  


Story by Aubra Salt - The Oregon Herald
Published on Sunday April 18, 2021 - 8:53 AM

 
PORTLAND, Oregon - Oregonians have a history of doing things their way. And often it's a good way, inventive, challenging, and progressive. Only time will tell if defying health standards and refusing to wear masks will earn Oregon as a rebel state, leader, or leading in new covid deaths.

Many US states have removed or reduced COVID-19 restrictions. But it appears Oregon could defy the trend and go the opposite direction — and many residents are fuming about it.

Several Oregon health officials are considering indefinitely extending rules requiring masks and social distancing in all businesses.

This suggestion could keep the rules in place until they are "no longer necessary to address the effects of the pandemic in the workplace."

Michael Wood, administrator of the Oregon department of Occupational Safety and Health, said "The move is necessary to address a technicality in state law that requires a permanent rule to keep current restrictions from expiring. We are not out of the woods yet".

But there is anger in the Beaver State. As well as anger. Parents, teachers, business owners, and employees are complaining with a loud cry.

The agency received a huge number of critical public comments. As well, at least 60,000 Oregonians signed a petition against the proposal.

Opponents to the proposal are angry with government officials who have not said how low Oregon's COVID-19 case numbers must go, or how many people need to be vaccinated. And get requirements lifted in Oregon where there have been some of the nation's strictest safety measures.

"When will masks be unnecessary? What scientific studies do these mandates rely on, particularly now that the vaccine is days away from being available to everyone?" said state Sen. Kim Thatcher, a Republican from Keizer, near the state's capital. "Businesses have had to play "mask cop' for the better part of a year now. They deserve some certainty on when they will no longer be threatened with fines."

Wood said he is reviewing all the feedback to see if changes are needed before he makes a final decision by May 4, when the current rules lapse.

Oregon, mostly democratic for almost forever, is among the country's most stringent COVID-19 restrictions and is now in stark contrast with much of the rest of America as vaccines become more widely available.

Six states have lifted mask mandates, and some never implemented them. In Texas, businesses reopened at 100% capacity last month. They include Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota and Texas.

In January, Virginia became the first in the nation to enact permanent COVID-19 workplace safety and health rules.

"While the end of this pandemic is finally in sight, the virus is still spreading — and now is not the time to let up on preventative measures," Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam said following the announcement.

Besides mask and distancing requirements, Oregon's proposal includes more arcane workplace rules regarding air flow, ventilation, employee notification in case of an outbreak, and sanitation protocols.

It dovetails with separate actions issued by Democratic Gov. Kate Brown, using a state of emergency declaration, requiring masks in public statewide — and even outside when 6 feet (1.83 meters) of distance can't be maintained — and providing strict, county-by-county thresholds for business closures or reductions in capacity when case numbers rise above certain levels.

More than a third of Oregon's counties are currently limited to indoor social gatherings of six people, and the maximum occupancy for indoor dining, indoor entertainment and gyms is 25% capacity or 50 people, whichever is less. And many schools are just now reopening after a year of online learning.

The workplace rule is "driven by the pandemic, and it will be repealed," Wood said.

"But, it might not need to go away at exactly the same time the State of Emergency is lifted," he said, referring to Brown's executive orders.

Amid pandemic frustration and deprivation, the issue has gained a lot of attention. A petition on change.org opposing the rule gained nearly 60,000 signatures and spread on social media, drawing even more interest to the proposal. More than 5,000 public comments were sent to the agency, smashing its previous record of 1,100.

"The majority of comments were simply hostile to the entire notion of COVID-19 restrictions," Wood said. "The vast majority of comments were in the context of, "You never needed to do anything.'"

Justin Spaulding, a doctor at the Cataract & Laser Institute of Southern Oregon, is among those who raised concerns about the proposal in public comments.

"I do not understand these new guidelines for business. If we put these into effect we will only continue to blunt the recent drop in business," he wrote. "We have a large subset of patients that are unwilling (or) hostile with the current guidelines, and making them permanent will only make it worse."

For Thatcher, the GOP state lawmaker, the most concerning part is "OSHA's lack of clarity" on when the rules will be lifted.

Officials said they have every intent to repeal the rule, and that decision will be made based on a complex mix of factors, including case counts, vaccination rates, case severity and advice from the Oregon Health Authority.

"It will be a complicated assessment when we do it, and I would say it is impossibly complicated to do in advance," Wood said.