PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Oregon’s statewide mask requirement for indoor public places will be lifted no later than the end of March, health officials announced Monday.
In addition, mask requirements for schools will be lifted on March 31.
Education and health officials will meet in coming weeks to revise guidance to “ensure schools can continue operating safely and keep students in class” after mask rule is lifted, said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state medical officer and epidemiologist.
“This will give (school officials) time to look at their community condition — vaccination rates and spread in their community — and decide if they want to implement a local mandate or requirement for schools,” Sidelinger said.
The end of March deadline for lifting statewide mask rules was selected using predictions by local health scientists that COVID-19 related hospitalizations will decrease to 400 or fewer by that time — a level that Oregon experienced before the omicron variant surge.
As of Friday, the most recent data available, 1,092 coronavirus patients were hospitalized in the state.
COVID-19 forecasts show hospitalizations peaking at 1,169 and declining throughout February and March. However, health officials cautioned that the state’s emergence from the omicron surge depends on Oregon residents maintaining effective prevention measures in coming weeks.
“We’re likely to see as many cases on the way down from the omicron peak as we saw on the way up,” Sidelinger said. “That means we need to keep taking steps to prevent more hospitalizations and deaths.”
Oregon, which is one of a handful of states — including Washington and California —that still have indoor face covering requirements, has had the mask mandate in place since mid-August 2021.
Under the rule, Oregon residents five and older regardless of vaccination status must wear masks in public indoor spaces — including grocery stores, restaurants, and gyms. Violaters face fines of up to $500 per day.
However, the current mask rule was temporary and set to expire on Tuesday, just as COVID-19 hospitalizations are cresting and state health care systems remain overwhelmed.
Due to a technicality in state law, health officials on Monday filed a “permanent” mask rule with the Secretary of State.
The filing was the only way that they could extend the current temporary mask rule beyond its expiration date until officials determine that mask rules are no longer be needed.
Although the rule is labeled as “permanent” officials said it will be lifted by the end of March.
However, even with officials saying the rule would be lifted when it is deemed “no longer necessary,” 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 a virtual public hearing about the rule where they vehemently opposed it and called it government overreach.
After the rules are lifted, employers, businesses and school districts can implement their own mask rules.
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.