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Regional Interests

Oregon officially reopens after 15 months of pandemic restrictions

Oregon officially reopened for business and pleasure Wednesday, after more than 15 months with strict rules to limit the spread of COVID-19.

Oregon OSHA officials removed the facial covering and physical distancing requirements, with some exceptions like in health care settings and airports, following a declaration last week by Gov. Kate Brown.

At A-Boy hardware in Southwest Portland, manager Lisa Brown has taken down all the plexiglass at the cash registers and ended the one-way in-and-out system. She said masks also aren’t a requirement anymore.

“Certainly if someone would like to wear a mask they’re more than welcome. And we have many employees who’ve chosen to wear masks today,” Brown said. “We’re still providing them, we still have them if they want them.”

Many protections will remain in place in the store, like hand sanitizer, gloves and wipes to clean frequently touched places, like the credit card machines.

“We’re not pretending like everything’s back to normal all the way,” said Brown. “But this is the new normal.”

Outside, retiree Michael Thomas is buying perennials for his yard. He’s wearing a mask, but on his chin. He said the big reopening doesn’t feel very different.

“Most of the places I go require masks and they may require it after today too,” Thomas said.

Officials at New Seasons Market said it would no longer require customers to wear masks or maintain physical distance in Oregon stores, regardless of vaccination status. The company said fully vaccinated staff can take their masks off if they present proof of vaccination.

Fred Meyer is taking a somewhat different approach. The company said fully vaccinated customers and associates no longer need to wear masks in Oregon or Washington stores. The vaccination status of employees will be verified, but customers will be on the honor system.

”Non-vaccinated associates will be required to wear a mask,” said a Fred Meyer spokesperson. “We request that non-vaccinated customers continue to wear a mask.”

Much of Portland State University’s campus was quiet Wednesday. But a few students sat on the grass eating lunch. Sophomore Alex Engelhardt called the reopening, “kind of a relief.”

”As somebody who’s vaccinated, I feel like I’ll be pretty comfortable being outside, in public spaces, without a mask. I’m nervous about variants and stuff — what that means for unvaccinated people, and vaccinated people too I guess with the whole no mask thing,” she said.

PSU announced Wednesday that with the state’s lifting of the majority of coronavirus-related restrictions, including the six-feet physical distancing rule, it is also relaxing occupancy limits for classrooms and communal spaces — such as elevators and bathrooms. The university said it will allow external groups to hold events on campus again, though events with more than 250 people will require additional review.

Still, PSU will continue to require face coverings indoors in all public and shared spaces.

Engelhardt said she’d be okay with an optional face mask policy.

“I’d feel pretty good about that at PSU, mostly because they’re requiring vaccinations in the fall, so as long as everyone around me is vaccinated — definitely. I would love to see people’s faces again,” she said.

Engelhardt said she doesn’t know how she feels yet about going into businesses that may no longer require masks,

“I haven’t done it in so long that I feel like I would still wear a mask for a while, just out of comfort,” she said.

PSU graduate student, Gema Lacayo, had the same feelings of relief and caution.

”It’s about time, but obviously we should all stay precautious because there are variants,” she said. “We shouldn’t just be running out free, like it’s not completely gone. We’re still in a pandemic.”

In Newport, most people strolling around the Nye Beach neighborhood were unmasked Wednesday. But cafes and shops still require face coverings. The general manager of the Sylvia Beach Hotel, Cyb Cannizzaro, said its staff doesn’t plan to lift the mask mandate or change distancing protocols anytime soon.

“We’ve been having really thoughtful meetings, thinking about it weekly since we came back last July,” Cannizzaro said.

The hotel meetings involve everyone, including chefs and cleaning staff.

Cannizzaro said that many of their visitors are elderly, and she feels an obligation to make sure they’re protected from breakthrough infections. So the dining room capacity will remain restricted.

“We just really feel this is premature. We base our policy on the WHO,” Cannizzaro said, referring to the World Health Organization, which continues to recommend mask-wearing even for vaccinated people.

Reopening does not mean all OSHA COVID-19 requirements are going away completely. For example, optimizing ventilation is still required in restaurants and stores, as are notifications of positive cases in the workplace.

“It is heartening to see that we have come so far and are experiencing an improving situation,” said Michael Wood, administrator for Oregon OSHA. “But the risks remain real – especially for those who are not fully vaccinated. That is why, from a risk management standpoint, it makes sense to keep some provisions of our workplace requirements in place longer.”

At Petunia’s Place, a gift store just around the corner from the Sylvia Beach Hotel, a sign on the door has been turned around, so its capacity limits during Oregon’s COVID-19 restrictions are hidden from view. Owner Carolyn Ackerman said she’s not requiring masks anymore, but not because she thinks it’s time to end social distancing measures.

“I am very frightened by reopening today. I believe that Governor Brown made a huge mistake by lifting the mask mandate,” she said.

Ackerman said she is particularly concerned about the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19.

”I think the delta variant is going to give us a left hook. That’s why I’m still wearing my mask,” said Ackerman, who is vaccinated.

But now that the mandate is over, she won’t be asking her customers to. Ackerman said after being yelled at, spat at and called names while enforcing Oregon’s masking and capacity restrictions, it wouldn’t be safe for her to enforce stricter rules than what Oregon is mandating.

“I enforced the mask mandate for my community. But when somebody assaulted me? My well-being is more important than my community’s at that point.”

Bend’s most popular public pool, the Juniper Swim and Fitness Center, teemed with lap swimmers, jubilant children and watchful parents like Elizabeth Banderas.

“When I woke up today, I knew that I had to get the kiddos out here to do something,” she said.

The outing marked the family’s first return to a crowded public space since the state’s emergency orders took effect in March 2020.

”Getting out of the car today, I didn’t make them grab their masks, and they were like, ‘Mommy you forgot our masks.’ And I’m like, ‘We don’t need masks today.’ And they said, ‘What?! Is coronavirus over?’”

The pool has dropped masking requirements and opened to full capacity. But, Banderas isn’t ready to call it over yet.

“I would say, proceed with caution,” she said. “Because everyone still isn’t vaccinated.”

Bend Parks and Recreation District recreation services manager Sue Glenn said she won’t miss asking patrons about their vaccination status.

“We’re relieved not to be given that responsibility. We want everyone to make the right decision for themselves,” she said.

The hospital in Bend continues to report a steady flow of COVID-19 patients, as it serves both the largest metro areas east of the Cascades and rural counties with some of the lowest vaccination rates in the state.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said areas with low vaccination rates should consider imposing their own restrictions. It also warned the more transmissible delta variant is likely to become the dominant strain.

In a small city near the Oregon-Idaho border, Bob Holmes was having a good day.

”For the first time since March 15 of 2020, we’re full capacity. No restrictions,” said the owner of Bob’s Steak N’ Spirits in Nyssa.

No more masks. No physical distancing.

Holmes decided to keep extra sanitation measures in place, however. He likes the idea of cleaning the condiments between customers.

By late morning he was getting ready for lunch service and preparing to bring tables and chairs back inside to boost capacity. More than one year of closures and pandemic restrictions have been rough, both financially and emotionally.

”I’m 67 years old,” he said. “The first shutdown was extremely hard. I couldn’t even walk into my building and see it shut down.”

He had been planning to put the place up for sale in Jan. 2021. But now, retirement is on hold. Maybe when he’s 70.

”The governor has to let us operate so I can get the value of my business back, my employees can be guaranteed work full time,” he said. “We just gotta get back to doing business.”

That business will happen in a county with one of the lowest vaccination rates in Oregon. About 36% of people over age 16 in Malheur County have gotten at least one shot of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Michael Thomas says the reopening doesn't feel that different.
Kristian Foden-Vencil /
Michael Thomas says the reopening doesn't feel that different.
Four-year-old Kai cools off with mom Elizabeth Banderas at Juniper Swim and Fitness Center in Bend on June 30, 2021. "I'm still telling [my kids] we still need to keep a safe distance and let's not give people that we don't know hugs," Banderas said.
Emily Cureton /
Four-year-old Kai cools off with mom Elizabeth Banderas at Juniper Swim and Fitness Center in Bend on June 30, 2021. "I'm still telling [my kids] we still need to keep a safe distance and let's not give people that we don't know hugs," Banderas said.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting