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Masks Required In 7 Oregon Counties, Multnomah To Reopen

The Umbrella Man statue wears a mask in Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., Saturday, April 18, 2020. Some public health officials have encouraged people to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Umbrella Man statue wears a mask in Pioneer Courthouse Square in Portland, Ore., Saturday, April 18, 2020. Some public health officials have encouraged people to wear masks to slow the spread of COVID-19.

The mandate will take effect on June 24, and applies only to indoor public spaces. Gov. Brown is also allowing four Oregon counties to progress in reopening.

Residents in seven Oregon counties will be required to wear face masks while in indoor public spaces, under a directive Gov. Kate Brown is planning to put into effect next week.

And she's allowing Oregon's largest county to begin reopening.

As the state sees a spike in new positive cases of COVID-19, and an uptick in hospitalizations, Brown announced Wednesday that people in Multnomah, Clackamas, Washington, Marion, Polk, Hood River and Lincoln counties will need to abide by new guidelines when they’re at the grocery store and other public indoor businesses.

Brown’s statement did not address how the mandate would work at sit-down restaurants and bars, though she told county officials Wednesday that masks would not be required while customers are eating and drinking. The directive is still being crafted by the Oregon Health Authority, and will take effect June 24.

At the same time, the governor said she will also allow four counties to progress to new stages of reopening as of Friday, June 19. That includes Multnomah County, which saw its expected transition into Phase 1 of Brown’s reopening framework paused in a last-minute decision June 11, a day before many businesses had counted on reopening.

Marion, Polk and Hood River counties are being allowed to transition to Phase 2 as of Friday.

Brown has also decided to group counties in the Portland and Salem metro areas when deciding whether they can reopen further. That means Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties’ fates are now tethered together, and all three are ineligible to proceed to Phase 2 until July 10 at the earliest. Marion and Polk counties are also now linked, though no county is expected to progress to the governor’s Phase 3 until a vaccine for COVID-19 or other preventive measure is available.

“I instituted the statewide pause because of the rising number of cases in both rural and urban communities,” Brown said in a statement laying out her decision. “I did this to give public health experts time to assess what factors are driving the spread of the virus and make adjustments to our reopening strategy.”

The decisions come as Oregon is grappling with a spate of new cases that have regularly shattered daily records. On Tuesday, the Oregon Health Authority announced a record 278 new confirmed or presumptive cases of COVID-19, a number that has been linked in part to an outbreak in Union County.

Because of that outbreak, Union County commissioners have recommended that residents adhere to the limitations of the governor’s Phase 1, though the county had been granted permission to enter Phase 2.

Brown’s statement nodded to the increased growth rate of cases in the state, but suggested she was not concerned about counties she is allowing to proceed with reopening. She noted that hospitalizations had decreased in Marion and Polk counties, and that Hood River has only seen a single COVID-19 hospitalization in two weeks. In Multnomah County, she said, a spate of new cases have not led to hospitalizations that could tax the health care system.

“The next few weeks will be difficult, and we will be monitoring the data regularly,” Brown said in the statement. “We are much better prepared than we were in early March. We have increased PPE, much more widespread testing, and many more contact tracers. However, if hospitalizations spike too rapidly, if the capacity of our health care system is threatened, we will be forced to revert to stricter rules.”

Brown’s announcement was met with immediate approval by Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury, who said she supports the decision to link the tri-county region to a single reopening scheme.

“We know that people in the Portland metro area live in one county, work in another and recreate in a third,” Kafoury said in a statement. “And yet, the virus does not care about county lines.”

Meanwhile, Clackamas County Chair Jim Bernard was a bit more cautious in his support. While he said it makes sense for the three counties to be tied together, Bernard told OPB he worries his county could be prevented from entering Phase 2, even if its showing improvement. 

"Obviously we need to be careful because we don't want to go back to 'stay home, stay safe,'" said Bernard, referring to the governor's order shuttering activity throughout the state. But he added that if his county is inextricably tied to the others, "I'm concerned that Clackamas County, which has been doing pretty well, will never get out."

The number of new cases has spiked in Clackamas County recently, which Bernard acknowledged made the Phase 2 application the county had initially planned to submit this Friday unlikely to be approved. The county chair said he supports Brown's decision to require masks. 

"It works," Bernard said. "I hope everyone wears them." 

In Washington County, Chair Kathryn Harrington said the decision to link the three counties is the right move. 

"Of course with the science as the guide for the governor and her public health advisers, we have to respect that decision," said Harrington. Like Clackamas County, Washington has been trending in the wrong direction, prompting uncertainty as to whether it could even proceed to Phase 2 next week as initially hoped. 

Asked whether she was comfortable holding off reopening even further if the other two counties see sharp spikes in cases, Harrington replied: "I wouldn't say comfortable. I would say that I have to accept the way the new coronavirus is in our community." 

Copyright 2020 Oregon Public Broadcasting.

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.