Hundreds of Oregon residents pushed back on what they characterized as government overreach Thursday, during an Oregon Health Authority hearing in which officials discussed extending the state’s indoor mask requirement indefinitely due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
It’s described as a “permanent” mask mandate, which would be the first of its kind in the nation, though officials say the term is a misnomer and is simply being considered because the current, “temporary” mandate cannot be extended beyond 180 days.
Without further action by the state, the current mandate would expire on February 23.
The rule will be rescinded once it is no longer needed, state leaders have repeatedly said, though they have declined to share specific metrics or criteria that would outline when the mandate could be lifted.
Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state’s epidemiologist, indicated at a news conference Friday that the state will rescind the rule when conditions improve, repeating a message from Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, last week in testimony to a legislative committee.
“Because it’s a permanent rule does not mean it will be here forever,” Sidelinger said.
Republican leaders have called for the health authority to set benchmarks that would determine when the rule would be lifted, and at least two — Kim Wallen, R-Medford, and Jessica George, R-Keizer — urged opponents of the mask mandate to make their voices heard at Thursday’s hearing.
They answered the call, with a reported 350 people — ranging from stay-at-home parents, registered nurses, a speech-language pathologist, teachers and business owners in rural and urban areas — attending the hearing and speaking out in vehement opposition to the rule.
“First and foremost, I think it’s pretty clear … the people simply don’t trust you guys anymore,” Elizabeth Moore, a Portland resident, said. “We don’t believe that you’re going to take into account the best interest of Oregonians, and we don’t believe that you’re going to repeal this.”
Many people testifying cited scientific studies and data, anecdotes, quotes and constitutional or legal arguments they claimed show masks are ineffective or otherwise supported their stance against the mandate.
Others argued the requirement had too many negative effects on Oregonians, such as making it impossible for the deaf or hearing impaired to read lips. Most were frustrated and some threatened officials.
“Remove this, and don’t push it through,” said Angela Todd, chief communications officer for Free Oregon, a nonpartisan civil liberties group that opposes mask and vaccine mandates and has held events in Canby. “And I promise you, if you push this through, we’re coming for you.”
Oregon health officials and the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say wearing masks indoors can help reduce the spread of Covid, especially as the highly contagious Omicron variant continues to spike record numbers of infections and hospitalizations in the state and many other parts of the country.
Sidelinger said the state will take comments made at Thursday’s hearing into consideration. He said state officials didn’t intend to set benchmarks to trigger the removal of the mask mandate, indicating that there are too many variables and unknowns.
State health officials will consider hospital capacity, the availability of Covid-19 treatments which are currently in short supply and how well the vaccines hold up against the virus before deciding to lift the rule, Sidelinger said.
Allen, director of the OHA, told lawmakers in legislative hearings last week that he intends to lift the mandate when the pandemic poses less of a health risk. The state is currently still in the throes of the Omicron surge, with hospitalizations close to 1,000.
An Oregon Health & Science University forecast predicts hospitalizations will soar past 1,600 then quickly fall back.
“OHA can rescind or cancel the rule when public health doctors believe it’s no longer necessary to stop the virus from spreading at a high rate and putting vulnerable people at risk of being hospitalized or dying,” Rudy Owens, an agency spokesman, said in an email to the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
Oregon has had some of the strictest Covid-19 restrictions and safety measures throughout the pandemic, which officials say have contributed to the state experiencing among the nation’s lowest Covid-19 counts, hospitalizations and deaths per capita — before Omicron.
At least eight other states — including California, New York and Washington — require most people to wear masks in indoor public places, regardless of vaccination status.
Most states dropped the requirement last spring after the CDC said it was safe for fully vaccinated people to go maskless. But it reversed its position just a few months later amid the Delta surge. The CDC also recently recommended wearing tight-fitting N95 or KN95 masks to stem the transmission of Omicron, the most transmissible variant yet.
OHA is holding two more hearings Monday to discuss making masking in schools and health care settings permanent, as well as to take public comment on vaccine requirements for educators and health care workers.
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