Governor Kate Brown will require face coverings to be worn in all indoor public spaces in Oregon’s most populous counties, including Clackamas, starting Wednesday, June 24.
Face masks will also be required in indoor spaces, including grocery stores and other businesses where employees have already been required to wear them for over a month, in Multnomah, Washington, Hood River, Marion, Polk and Lincoln counties.
The governor made the surprise announcement in a press release Wednesday afternoon, where she also announced phase 1 approval for Multnomah County, along with a phase 2 green light for Marion and Polk counties, which have seen a decline in hospitalizations, and Hood River, which has had only one new hospital admission in the past two weeks.
How the governor plans to enforce the new mask mandate was not immediately clear. In other states, the enforcement for such requirements has generally fallen to retail employees, who have sometimes been rewarded with unpleasant or even violent confrontations.
She elaborated on the new mask mandate during a press conference Thursday, saying the details will be finalized by the Oregon Health Authority before it takes effect next week. She said that the mandate is enforceable by law, but that people will not be arrested or ticketed for not wearing a mask.
“I am encouraging, cajoling, asking Oregonians to be kind and be smart and to protect their fellow Oregonians,” Brown said.
There will be exceptions, she noted, including for people with medical conditions that make it hard to breathe and for children younger than 12. Businesses may deny service and entry to anyone who refuses to wear a mask, she said.
Brown also announced she will treat Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington as “a single unit” in future reopening decisions, which is likely to further delay Clackamas County’s application for phase 2.
Though Clackamas is currently experiencing a sharp spike in new cases, it has generally been less impacted by Covid-19 than its two Portland metro area neighbors. Being grouped with Multnomah, which just entered phase 1, means it will be at least another 21 days before Clackamas might move on to phase 2.
In a statement Wednesday, Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard said he understands the news will be a disappointment to some residents.
“Yet, we cannot ignore the increase in cases of COVID-19 and the alarming projections of how many more people would get sick if we continued into Phase II reopening,” he said. “The health of Clackamas County residents remains our top priority.”
He encouraged county residents to follow the public health guidelines, including observing physical distancing, frequent hand washing and wearing masks.
“We believe that by working together our entire community can beat this pandemic,” said Bernard. “Please do your part to keep yourself and community safe and healthy.”
The state has seen a sharp rise in the number of confirmed cases of Covid-19 over the past two weeks — even as hospitalizations and deaths have remained relatively flat.
Oregon’s eight highest daily totals for new cases have come in the past 10 days, including Tuesday’s record 278, which was almost 100 more than the previous high, set the day before.
The increases have been driven in part by several concentrated outbreaks across the state, including the Pacific Seafood plant in Newport, the Marquis Hope Village post-acute rehab center in Canby and a new hotspot in eastern Oregon, which appears to be centered on a Pentecostal church in Union County.
While critics believe the spike in cases to be primarily tied to increased testing, data indicate the state is also seeing a marked increase in the number of coronavirus tests that are coming back positive.
The governor said her decisions come after analyzing the most recent data on the state’s Covid-19 outbreak, including the source of the growth in new cases, hospitalizations, results of contact tracing, and other metrics, and consulting with independent health experts, business leaders, and local elected officials.
“Our entire ability to reopen and stay open is dependent on whether each of us follows basic health and safety protections,” the governor said. “Stay home if you feel sick, wear a face covering, keep six feet of distance, avoid crowds, and wash your hands regularly. We truly are all in this together.”
Governor Brown had announced last month new guidelines mandating all employees at restaurants, retail stores and other businesses to wear masks, but stopped short of requiring them of the public except users of public transit.
Public health officials at the local, state and national levels have long advocated the use of face coverings to slow the spread of Covid-19, touting their ability to limit the risk of asymptomatic carriers spreading the virus to others.
But they have become a particularly bitter, often partisan flashpoint for those who believe they are ineffective or perhaps even detrimental to health — or who simply don’t like Governor Brown telling them what to do.
That was at least part of the motivation behind Canby’s most notorious anti-face covering episode to date, wherein the owner of the local Bricks and Minifigs store, in a live Facebook video, tore up a copy of the governor’s coronavirus guidelines and declared he would not require his employees to wear masks.