As states across the country lift COVID-19 restrictions, Oregon is poised to go the opposite direction – and many residents are outraged about it.
A top health official is considering indefinitely expanding rules requiring masks and social aloofness in all businesses in the state.
The proposal keeps the rules in effect until they are "no longer needed to address the workplace impacts of the pandemic".
Michael Wood, administrator for the state's Department of Safety and Health, said the move is necessary to address a technical problem in state law that is a & # 39; permanent & # 39; rule required to prevent current restrictions from expiring.
"We're not out of the woods yet," he said.
But the idea has sparked a torrent of angry reactions, with everyone from parents to teachers to entrepreneurs and workers crying for going too far with the government.
Wood's office received a record number of public comments, mostly critical, and nearly 60,000 residents petitioned against the proposal.
Opponents are also angry, government officials won't say how low COVID-19 case numbers should go in Oregon, or how many people should be vaccinated to get the requirements lifted in a state that already has some of the strictest security measures in the country.
“When are masks not necessary? What scientific studies do these mandates rely on, especially now that the vaccine is only days away from being available to everyone? "said State Senator Kim Thatcher, a Republican from Emperor, near the state capital." Businesses have had to "mask agent" for nearly a year now. play. They deserve some security when they are no longer threatened with fines. "
Wood said he is reviewing all feedback to see if any changes are needed before making a final decision on May 4, when the current rules expire.
Oregon, a blue state, was among those with the strictest COVID-19 restrictions in the country and now stands in contrast to the rest of the nation as vaccines become more widely available.
At least six states – Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and Texas – have lifted mask mandates, and some never implemented them. In Texas, the companies reopened last month at 100% capacity.
In January, Virginia became the first in the nation to enact permanent COVID-19 workplace safety and health rules.
"With the end of this pandemic finally in sight, the virus is still spreading – and now is not the time to give up on preventive measures," Democratic Government Ralph Northam said after the announcement.
In addition to mask and spacing requirements, Oregon's proposal includes more secretive workplace rules regarding airflow, ventilation, employee notification in the event of an outbreak, and hygiene protocols.
It ties in with separate actions by Democratic Governor Kate Brown, who uses a state of emergency, requires masks in public all over the state – and even outside when a distance of six feet cannot be maintained – and with strict, provincial threshold for business closures or capacity reductions when the number of cases rises above certain levels.
More than a third of Oregon 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 only now reopening after a year of online learning.
The workplace rule is "driven by the pandemic and will be repealed," Wood said.
"But it may not have to go away at exactly the same time as the state of emergency is lifted," he said, referring to Brown's executive orders.
Amid pandemic frustration and hardship, the problem has received a lot of attention. A petition on change.org opposing the rule got nearly 60,000 signatures and spread on social media, drawing even more interest in the proposal. More than 5,000 public comments were sent to the agency, breaking the previous record of 1,100.
“Most of the comments were simply hostile to the whole idea of COVID-19 restrictions,” Wood said. "The vast majority of comments related to:" You never had to do anything ". & # 39; & # 39;
Justin Spaulding, a physician at the Cataract & Laser Institute of Southern Oregon, is among those who expressed concern about the proposal in public comments.
“I don't understand these new business guidelines. Implementing these will only mitigate the recent drop in sales, ”he wrote. "We have a large subset of patients who are unwilling (or) hostile to current guidelines, and if they are made permanent, it will only get worse."
For Thatcher, the GOP state legislator, the most concerning part is "OSHA's ambiguity" about when the rules will be lifted.
Officials said they have every intention of repealing the rule, and that decision will be made based on a complex mix of factors, including number of cases, vaccination coverage, severity of the case and advice from the Oregon Health Authority.
“It's going to be a complicated tradeoff if we do it, and I would say it's impossibly complicated to do beforehand,” Wood said.
Cline is a corps member of The Associated Press / Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national nonprofit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on hidden issues.
Copyright 2021 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.