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Oregon Health Authority issues new guidance for mask wearing

The Oregon Health Authority said this week that businesses and venue operators can establish more restrictive mask policies at their own discretion. They also clarified that mask requirements no longer apply to anyone outdoors. Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, joins us to talk about the new rules.

Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. Yesterday, Oregon provided more clarity about its new mask wearing guidelines. Everybody, regardless of vaccination status can now go maskless outside. For indoor spaces though, it’s up to each business to decide if they’ll still require masks for everybody or if they’ll let vaccinated people go without. But they have to verify vaccination status of unmasked customers or employees. Patrick Allen is the director of the Oregon Health Authority. He joins us once again to talk about these new rules. Pat Allen, Welcome back.

Patrick Allen: Thanks for having me.

Dave Miller: So as I mentioned, the biggest change that I saw here is that businesses that choose to let patrons go unmasked are going to have to verify vaccination status. How did the state decide on that mandate?

Patrick Allen: The CDC, as you observe, threw us a little bit of a loop last week unexpectedly making a pretty huge change. What they really said is there are going to be two sets of rules. One set of rules for people who were vaccinated, and a different set of rules for people who aren’t.

We took that, and we made the decision from an outdoor standpoint to simply not require masks, whether people are vaccinated or not. So we tried to simplify that. But the indoors is a little bit of a challenge because the risk of transmission is much, much greater indoors. We still have a lot of coronavirus in Oregon. We have about the eighth highest infection rate in the country right now. It’s coming down and that’s good, but we still have lots of people in hospitals and we’ve been reporting a pretty high number of deaths as well. So what we didn’t think we could do was just assume everybody is vaccinated because only about 50% of Oregonians are, and it’s a much lower percentage in some parts of the state.

So we made the decision that if businesses want to allow people not to wear masks, they need to ask to look at something like the person’s vaccination card. If they don’t want to deal with that process, they can continue to ask people to remain masked indoors. I was out and about a lot this last weekend in my corner of Washington County, and that was far and away what people were doing anyway.

Dave Miller: There was another option. I mean you outlined two there, but another one would be a kind of honor system where you say, hey, if you want to go maskless indoors, that’s fine, but you have to be vaccinated without making the businesses the mandated verifiers. Did you consider that?

Patrick Allen: I guess that from our standpoint, that was what amounts to assuming everybody who shows up without a mask is vaccinated.

Dave Miller: Assuming that they’re telling the truth, right.

Patrick Allen: Yeah, and so that’s why we went with the verification step, because we just don’t think we can assume that everyone right now is vaccinated. We don’t have enough people vaccinated yet to be able to do that.

Dave Miller: Various industry groups in Oregon have put out statements in the last 24 hours, basically saying the same thing, that business owners don’t want to have to put themselves in the vaccination policing business. Do you think this is going to mean that many businesses just stick with mask mandates for everybody?

Patrick Allen: I think that’s probably a likely outcome. Yeah.

Dave Miller: What about national chains like Walmart, Starbucks, Target, Trader Joe’s, and others that last week already announced that they’re not going to require masks for vaccinated customers? Do you expect them to ask for vaccination cards?

Patrick Allen: Or require masks. The CDC in its guidance also said that businesses still need to follow state and local requirements and restrictions, and that would be the case with those national chains as well.

Dave Miller: And those chains, noted that they will do that. Not surprising that they are going to follow the federal guidelines. For businesses that do decide to allow maskless customers, how do you imagine that  the vaccination status check is going to go?

Patrick Allen: I think it could vary a lot with different kinds of businesses. We tried not to be at all prescriptive about what that process would look like. So it could be, if it’s a restaurant or a bar, when you show up for your reservation, part of checking you into your table is to ask to look at your evidence. It could be if you’re a regular, a person who shows up periodically at a business, that they ask for that documentation and then note it somewhere so that you don’t have to do it every time. We’re thinking about a gym or a barber or something like that.

I think there are lots of different ways it can be accomplished and we’re not being prescriptive about how to do that.

Dave Miller: The vaccination card. We’re not talking here about an Oregon driver’s license with laser etched writing and countless holograms. It’s a piece of card stock with a few labels on it. A friend of mine today said it already looks like it’s been faked, his actual real one. People have been talking about the possibility of fake vaccination cards. How worried are you about that?

Patrick Allen: Oh, it’s a concern, but I think what we’re really trying to do is to assure that there’s a minimal amount of trying to check that people have been been vaccinated rather than everyone just, whether they’re vaccinated or not, acting as though the mask rules have simply been repealed. The biggest concern is not taking that step of everyone abandoning masks entirely.

Dave Miller: In other words, your hope is by putting in this mandate, you’ll discourage businesses from letting people go maskless, and from the state perspective, it would actually be a good development.

Patrick Allen: And encourage people to get vaccinated. That there are, in fact, benefits of being vaccinated. Because again, the CDC provided two different sets of rules for people who are vaccinated and people who aren’t.

Dave Miller: I’m glad you brought that up, because in a sense, this is a kind of carrot dangling in front of unvaccinated people. If vaccination itself, and the health benefits of that is not enough, now the thinking goes, you might be able to go into your favorite establishment without a mask. Have you seen an increase in previously eligible people who are only now getting vaccinated because of this carrot?

Patrick Allen: We only provided the details about the carrot yesterday, so I think it’s a little bit too soon to answer that.

Dave Miller: It’s been a week now where some version of this has been clear. So, you haven’t seen a notable increase in the last week is what I’m wondering.

Patrick Allen: I think that’s probably right, although we’re also in a place where the rate of vaccination is decreasing. So what we may see is a slowing in the rate of decrease, but I still think it’s too early to be able to look at data and say that.

Dave Miller: So there is one side of this which is businesses potentially throwing up their hands and saying, because we don’t want to be in the vaccination card policing business, we are just going to stick with the requirements. The other is businesses deciding that they’re not going to follow these rules, that they don’t want to ask their maskless patrons about the vaccination status, so they’re just going to trust their customers to do what’s right. I’ve heard at least one business today that plans to do that. Who’s going to enforce vaccination verification?

Patrick Allen: This would be like any of the other requirements that we have on businesses, venues, and other establishments, and it’ll vary with what the regulatory status of that entity is. It could be OLCC in the case of a bar restaurant. It could be Oregon OSHA, if the location is an employer. It would vary with what kind of business we’re talking about.

Dave Miller: But it would be based on a complaint brought to that agency.

Patrick Allen: Correct.

Dave Miller: How much of everything that we’ve just talked about is going to change if and when the state reaches the target of 70% of eligible Oregonians having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine, which is projected to be sometime next month.

Patrick Allen: So the governor announced, when she set that 70% objective, that we would then eliminate the whole risk based structure of limitations and capacity limits and those kinds of things, but we would keep whatever CDC recommends about masks and distancing. Of course that was before they made this announcement. When we get to 70%, I would expect that this issue of masks and distancing will also be reviewed as a part of that, but no decisions have been made yet.

Dave Miller: So it’s too early to know, in other words, what’s going to happen with masks in a month from now if and when we get to 70%, but something might change.

Patrick Allen: Yes.

Dave Miller: Patrick Allen, thanks very much for joining us today.

Patrick Allen: Thanks for having me.

Dave Miller: Patrick Allen is the director of the Oregon Health Authority.

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Sage Van Wing