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Many C. Oregonians excited for lifting of indoor mask mandate, emergency declaration

(Update: Adding video, comments from business, Bend and Redmond teachers' unions)

Feedback from school districts backed earlier move; people in 'high-risk groups' still urged to wear masks in public

BEND, Ore. (KTVZ) -- Starting on Saturday, March 19, mask mandates will be lifted for all indoor spaces in Oregon, including schools.

On April 1, the governor's Covid-19 emergency declaration will be lifted.

Jennifer Potts, who lives in Bend, feels these moves are appropriate.

“I think it’s time, I think it’s time,” Potts said of Thursday's announcement. “We have to learn to live with this virus.”

Covid-19 hospitalizations have dropped 48 percent since peaking in late January and over the past two weeks, hospitalizations have fallen by an average of more than 30 a day.

Members of the Bend and Redmond Education Associations (teachers unions) provided this joint statement to NewsChannel 21:

“Many Central Oregon educators are excited to hear today’s news from state authorities regarding the rapid decline of COVID hospitalizations in Oregon.  As our school districts work to make appropriate updates to state required Safe Return to In-Person Instruction & Continuity of Service Plans, we are confident district officials will ensure the transition to mask optional school settings is in alignment with statute/rules/regulations and will continue to consider students/staff with medical complexities with kindness, compassion, and respect.”

Several other Central Oregonians said they are ready to start going places without needing to don a mask.

“I am pretty excited about it,” Jill Butcher of Bend said. “I'm getting kind of tired of wearing the mask.”

Michael Grant from Sisters agrees. 

“Just from the news I’ve read it, just feels like the timing is good to stop wearing masks inside,” Grant said. 

Deb Bourine is an artist who works behind the counter at Red Chair Art Gallery in downtown Bend.

“I’m excited, I’m happy for it,” Bourine said of the mandate being lifted. 

She's looking forward to seeing people’s faces again, but she has no problem if people still want to wear a mask.

“Oh I would definitely allow anyone that wanted to come in and wear their mask,” Bourine said.

Butcher will use her judgment based on the situation.

 “I might still wear my mask in some situations, but it will be nice to have the freedom to feel like I can take it off,” Butcher said. 

With two different variants causing surges after the last mandate was lifted, that same possibility is on many people's minds.

“So yeah, I guess there's always going to be that fear that maybe another virus is going to come along -- maybe it's going to be coronavirus, maybe it's going to be a new virus,” Potts said. 

“It’s some educated concern that could definitely happen, but I don’t have fear about it,” Grant added.

“I kind of refuse to live in a fear-based thing. I’m not worried one iota about it, really,” Bourine said sternly. 

Bourine thinks after March 19, it should stay an individual's choice.

“If they want to keep wearing it, good. But I don’t have to think like they think, or they don’t have to think like I think,” Bourine said. “So whatever is best for each person, let them do it.”

The Redmond School Board had recently directed the district staff to come up with a plan to make masks optional starting March 2 .

On Thursday, Superintendent Charan Cline said the school board may meet before next Wednesday to reconsider their directive, in light of the new, earlier mask mandate ending date.

Here are the Oregon Health Authority and Gov. Kate Brown's office announcements of the changes:

Oregon to lift mask requirements for indoor public spaces, schools March 19 

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon will lift mask requirements for indoor public places and Oregon’s schools on March 19, Oregon Health Authority (OHA) announced today, as hospitalizations drop and are projected to reach levels below those at the start of the Omicron surge.

Earlier this month, OHA announced that the general indoor mask requirement would be lifted by March 31, with the option of lifting it sooner if conditions improved enough.

Originally, OHA announced that the K-12 indoor mask rule would lift on March 31. Feedback from school districts around the state indicated that preparations for the transition could be completed earlier.

By that date, it was expected, 400 or fewer people per day in Oregon would be hospitalized with the virus, a level the state experienced prior to the arrival of the Omicron variant. A recent modeling report by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) predicted the state would reach that total around March 20.

Daily COVID-19 hospitalizations have declined 48% since peaking in late January. Over the past two weeks, hospitalizations have fallen by an average of more than 30 a day. Yesterday, there were 579 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state.

Reported COVID-19 infections also have dropped precipitously in recent weeks. Over the past month, new infections have declined by more than 80%. The seven-day moving average for new cases is 84% lower than at the peak of the Omicron surge.

“We are able to take this important step, earlier than anticipated, because of the collective diligence and the shared sacrifice that people in Oregon have demonstrated in getting vaccinated, wearing masks and limiting their gatherings,” said Dean Sidelinger, M.D. MSEd, health officer and state epidemiologist. His videotaped statement is here.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qbAqXmmkCqk

“Based on the feedback from local leaders and communities, OHA and ODE are partnering to develop practical updates to safety protocols for quarantine, contact tracing, and testing that meet the current conditions of the pandemic, said Colt Gill, director of the Oregon Department of Education and deputy superintendent of public instruction.

“These guidelines will continue to support our North Star goal of providing in-person learning for every student, all day, every school day and will focus on specific supports for students, staff, and families that may be at more risk from COVID-19 than others in the school population.”

His videotaped statement is here.

The March 19 date continues to give local communities time to prepare for the transition, and it allows district and school leaders to take necessary actions to ensure students can safely remain in their classrooms.

State officials highly recommend that people in high-risk groups continue to wear masks in indoor public settings, even after the restrictions are lifted.

They include people who are at higher risk because they are unvaccinated; immunocompromised; have underlying health conditions that put them at higher risk of complications; are 65 or older; or who live with someone in one of those categories.

State officials also continue to strongly recommend universal masking in K-12 settings where children are required to attend. Those settings bring together vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, as well as individuals who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.


Governor Kate Brown to Lift COVID-19 Emergency Declaration, Effective April 1

(Salem, OR) — Governor Kate Brown today announced that she will be lifting Oregon’s COVID-19 emergency declaration, effective April 1. COVID-19 hospitalizations and case numbers continue to drop rapidly across Oregon as the Omicron variant recedes.

“Over the past six months, as Oregon weathered our worst surges of the pandemic, I’m proud of the way Oregonians have worked together to keep each other safe,” said Governor Brown. “Lifting Oregon’s COVID-19 emergency declaration today does not mean that the pandemic is over, or that COVID-19 is no longer a significant concern. But, as we have shown through the Delta and Omicron surges, as we learn to live with this virus, and with so many Oregonians protected by safe and effective vaccines, we can now protect ourselves, our friends, and our families without invoking the extraordinary emergency authorities that were necessary at the beginning of the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is still present in Oregon, and we must remain vigilant. We must continue to get vaccinated and boosted, wear masks when necessary, and stay home when sick. That is the only way we can achieve our shared goals of saving lives and keeping our schools, businesses, and communities open.”

Most of the Governor’s executive orders regarding COVID-19 were rescinded on June 30, 2021. In responding to the subsequent Delta and Omicron surges of COVID-19, the Governor for the most part did not use her executive authority to issue new emergency orders. She did take other steps, such as activating the Oregon National Guard to help support hospital workers, and coordinating with the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) to bring skilled healthcare workers to Oregon to support hospital and long-term care facility staff.

Since June 30, the emergency declaration has provided the state with flexibility and resources for the state’s COVID-19 response and recovery efforts, including allowing for the use of SERV-OR volunteer medical providers in hospitals, providing flexibility around professional health licensing, and ensuring Oregon could access all available federal disaster relief funds available, such as enhanced SNAP benefits. 
 
Safety requirements in place today regarding masks, vaccinations for K-12 educators and staff, and vaccinations for healthcare workers do not rely on the state of emergency declaration––instead, they are covered by state or federal agency administrative rules issued under existing non-emergency state or federal authority. 

Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus
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Noah Chast

Noah Chast is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Noah here.

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