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Oregon's Mask Rules Expanding To Crowded Outdoor Spaces As COVID Cases Spike

Customers wearing face masks exit Costco in Tigard, Oregon, March 20, 2020.
Customers wearing face masks exit Costco in Tigard, Oregon, March 20, 2020.

Gov. Kate Brown is expanding Oregon’s statewide face mask policy, requiring that most Oregonians wear masks in outdoor situations when they cannot stay six feet from other people.

As the number of new COVID-19 infections continue to spike, the governor on Monday also announced a statewide limit of 10 people in indoor social gatherings. Those limits would not apply to businesses or worship services, the governor’s office said.

Both regulations take effect Wednesday. 

"Today we are sounding the alarm because we are at risk of letting the virus spiral out of control," Brown said in a press conference. "The question now is whether Oregon will be the next New York or the next Texas."

With the tighter rules, Brown is following the lead of hard-hit states like Washington, California, Michigan and New Jersey, which have also expanded face-covering rules to apply to crowded outdoor spaces. The news comes less than two weeks after Brown announced  Oregonians across the state would be required to wear a face mask in indoor spaces open to the public, such as grocery stores, gyms and pharmacies.

That mandate has been voluntary for children between ages 3 and 12. Masks aren’t required or requested for children 2 and under.

Running afoul of Brown’s executive order can come with a potential maximum penalty of 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine, but the governor has said repeatedly she would not ask police officers to enforce the rules. Instead, state agencies have been taking a lead in seeking to ensure businesses are requiring masks to be worn on their premises.

That system will also apply to the expanded mask regulations. Brown said she would rely on businesses to ensure customers followed the outdoor guidelines — for instance, if sitting outdoors at a restaurant or waiting in line to enter a grocery store. 

"For those businesses that are not following the rules, there will be serious consequences," Brown said, adding that those would include "citations, fines and ultimately closing down businesses that refuse to protect their employees and customers." 

Brown said the Oregon Liquor Control Commission had visited around 800 businesses around the state over the Fourth of July weekend, but could not say how many citations have been issued to date. The OLCC and Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Administration have been tasked with enforcing guidelines for businesses. 

While Brown is not closing any of the businesses that have been allowed to reopen, the newly announced 10-person limit on indoor social gatherings does tighten some existing guidelines in the state.

Under Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening framework, which most of Oregon’s 36 counties have been approved for, indoor gatherings of up to 50 peoplehave been permissible. Under Phase 1 of the framework, where the three Portland metro counties and Lincoln County remain, gatherings of 25 people were allowed.

Brown said repeatedly Monday she was not going to "set up the party police," and was instead urging Oregonians to voluntarily abide the guidelines. 

"The proof here will be in the numbers," she said. "Either people will adhere to this requirement ... or I will be forced to take more restrictive measures."

The increased requirements come as Oregon’s new confirmed and presumed daily infections of COVID-19 have continued to climb. More than 2,000 people were diagnosed with the coronavirus in the last week, the largest increase in Oregon in any seven-day period since the start of the pandemic.

On Saturday, the state hit a record high for new confirmed and presumptive infections, reporting 409 cases.

Patrick Allen, director of the Oregon Health Authority, said Monday that new cases are projected to triple in the next six weeks, a situation that would risk overwhelming health care resources in the state.

Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist, called recent modeling "troubling," noting that even a 10% reduction in transmission would still lead to growing numbers.

"The disease is spreading more and more quickly, and the efforts to get Oregonians to modify their behaviors have not been as successful as we've needed to keep the curve flattened," Sidelinger said. 

Officials blamed the increased spread principally on three things: workplace outbreaks, transmission in nursing homes and similar facilities, and social gatherings like house parties.  Brown's new rules impact only the last category, though Allen argued that the new precautions could lead to fewer workplace outbreaks.

As of Monday morning, 12,710 people in Oregon have been diagnosed with the coronavirus, according to state officials. Of those, 234 have died.

Brown was repeatedly asked Monday what the state's updated outlook might mean for schools reopening. The governor did not offer many specifics, but did suggest decisions on whether children could return to school might be made on a district by district basis. 

"When we closed schools, we took a statewide approach," Brown said. "The reopening process will take a much more granular, targeted, localized approach."

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration among public radio stations in Oregon and Washington that includes JPR.