PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) – Oregon on Tuesday passed a controversial rule that indefinitely extends the coronavirus mask and the social distance requirements for all businesses in the state.
State officials say the rule, which received thousands of public comments, will be in place until it “is no longer needed to tackle the effects of the pandemic in the workplace.”
“We reviewed all the comments – including the many comments that were against the rule – and we paid special attention to the comments that explained their rationale or provided specific information,” said Michael Wood, administrator of the state Department of Occupational Health. “Although we chose to go ahead with the rule, the finished product includes a number of changes based on that item.”
Oregon, which has been among those with the country’s strictest COVID-19 restrictions, had previously had a mask rule for businesses, but it was only temporary and could not be extended beyond 180 days. That prompted Wood to create a permanent rule with the intent to repeal it at some point.
“If COVID-19 protection in the workplace simply disappeared, it would have left workers far less protected. And that would have left employers wanting to know what is expected of them, with a lot less clarity than the rule provides, ”Wood said.
But the proposal encouraged a stream of angry responses, with everyone from parents to teachers to business owners and employees crying over the government’s overreach.
Wood’s agency received more than 5,000 comments – most critical – and nearly 70,000 residents signed a petition against the rule.
Opponents raised concerns that there is no sunset date or specific metric for when the rule would be automatically repealed. As a result, Wood said the final rule contains significantly more detail about the process and criteria that will be used to make the decision to repeal the rule.
The rule requires employers to make sure that people in most circumstances wear masks while working inside, and wear face clothing outside if they are to be within 6 feet of people. It also requires companies to make sure that people are not within six meters of each other – unless it is not convenient for certain activities.
The agency said it would consider whether the rule could be lifted starting by July.
In addition to mask and distance requirements, the rule – which also includes requirements and guidelines regarding airflow, ventilation, employee notification in the event of an outbreak and sanitation protocols – fluctuates with separate actions and restrictions by Government Kate Brown, the latest increased county risk levels.
Last week, Oregon recorded the nation’s fastest-growing COVID-19 infection rate, and as a result, Brown implemented additional restrictions in 15 counties, including bans on indoor dining at restaurants and bars and markedly declining capacity in gyms and indoor entertainment venues.
The restrictions were criticized by business owners and Republican lawmakers.
On Tuesday, those counties were moved back to a level that was effective Friday because the state seven-day average increase for hospitalized COVID-19 positive patients fell to below 15 percent. This means that indoor dining and other activities are allowed.
“As Oregons continue to be vaccinated every week, my expectation is that we will not return to Extreme Risk again during this pandemic,” Brown said.
So far, approx. one-third of Oregon’s population has been fully vaccinated.
About 75% of the state’s manned adult ICU beds and about 85% of the state’s manned adult non-ICU beds are occupied, based on data provided by the Oregon Health Authority.
In the past month, COVID-19 admissions in Oregon have more than doubled, with 345 people hospitalized with the virus as of Tuesday.
Cline is a corps member of the Associated Press / Report for the America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercover issues.