The CDC and Oregon Health Authority now strongly recommend people mask up when they’re indoors in public – but Deschutes County commissioners on Wednesday declined to send the same message.
The three commissioners had a pointed discussion following a presentation from county health officials showing COVID cases once again on the rise locally.
Emily Freeland, the environmental health specialist for Deschutes County and the COVID response supervisor, said “we’re back to the point where we would highly recommend” wearing masks indoors.
“Although it’s an inconvenience and it’s not fun, it’s sort of like putting on your seatbelt and driving on the right side of the road,” she said, adding that she hoped leaders like the county commission would encourage masking and vaccinations.
Granted, any recommendation handed down from the commission is just that – a recommendation.
But health officials believe a strong, united message from community leaders helps get the point across.
And while the issue of a mask mandate never came up, Commissioner Phil Chang said the data and discussion provided a key moment for the board to step up.
“People justifiably will be able to ask, why didn’t you do something?” he said. “This next wave is entirely preventable.”
He wondered if it was the commissioners’ responsibility “to take this small step of offering a strong recommendation.”
His two colleagues – Commissioners Tony Debone and Patti Adair – weren’t interested.
Debone said he planned to wear a mask when he went into grocery stores and other public places, “but I don’t have any other statement at the commission level at this time.”
He thanked the community for social distancing and “providing a culture of allowing people to wear masks if they like.”
He said the CDC and OHA’s recommendations should be enough for the community.
“You’re asking for more and I’m not interested in more,” Debone said in response to Chang.
After the meeting, Debone told Central Oregon Daily News, “I just don’t see it as another vote or position that we need to take.”
“If people are comfortable wearing masks and want to wear mask and have underlying conditions where they would feel a lot more comfortable wearing a mask,” he said. “That is fine, let’s keep that culture and allow people to do that.”
Dr. George Conway held his tongue when Central Oregon Daily News asked about the back-and-forth of the meeting.
“I think it may be indiscreet of me to give a direct answer, but I appreciate you asking,” he said.
On the delta variant, Commissioner Patti Adair said she has “seen information on both sides” and has heard “it’s really not deadly, but highly, highly contagious.”
She then questioned whether shutting down Oregon businesses last year did anything to stop the spread of the virus and called into question masks themselves.
“I’m saying cloth masks don’t work,” Adair said as county health officials watched. “I would just like to see more data.”
Adair ended the discussion with a reminder for people to wash their hands.
You can watch the full update/discussion below: