Oregonians will not be required to mask up indoors – including schools – beginning March 19th as COVID hospitalizations continue to fall across the state, health officials announced Thursday.
Additionally, Gov. Kate Brown will rescind her statewide COVID-19 emergency declaration on April 1.
Earlier this month, the Oregon Health Authority announced that the general indoor mask requirement would be lifted by March 31, with the option of lifting it sooner if conditions improved enough.
The initial March 31 date was chosen because 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.
New modeling by Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) predicted the state would reach that total around March 20.
According to the OHA, 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. Wednesday, there were 579 people hospitalized with COVID-19 across the state.
St. Charles on Thursday reported it had 39 patients.
“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 State Epidemiologist Dr. Dean Sidelinger.
Late Thursday, the Associated Press reported the Biden administration will significantly loosen federal mask-wearing guidelines to protect against COVID-19 transmission on Friday, according to two people familiar with the matter.
That will mean most Americans will no longer be advised to wear masks in indoor public settings.
Originally, OHA announced that the K-12 indoor mask rule would lift on March 31.
“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.
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.” – Gov. Kate Brown
But feedback from school districts around the state indicated that preparations for the transition could be completed earlier.
In Redmond, the school board this month passed a resolution calling for masks to be optional beginning March 2nd.
The move sent the district’s administrators scrambling to come up with a plan that would violate the state mandate and put teachers at risk of losing their licenses.
Wednesday night, Superintendent Charan Cline said the resolution has prompted the teachers union and union representing classified staff to demand a return to the bargaining table.
The bargaining is required because the resolution “constitutes a change in working conditions for our unions because it creates a safety issue/directs us to go against state law,” said district spokeswoman Sheila Miller.
“We will begin bargaining with the unions, but in the meantime, we are expected to keep current working conditions in place,” she said. “That means students/staff will continue to wear masks until the bargaining is complete.”
Miller said the unions would not be able to or need to bargain if the district were to wait for the state’s mask mandate to officially end.
Cline appeared on Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Think Out Loud” Thursday morning after the state’s announcement.
He said the board Chairwoman Shawn Hartfield contacted him and would like to “pull a meeting to reconsider the resolution as it currently stands.”
“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.”
State officials also continue to strongly recommend universal masking in K-12 settings because it brings together vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, as well as individuals who are at higher risk for severe COVID-19 illness.
The March 19 date gives 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, Gill said.
Spring Break for most schools in Oregon begins on March 21st.
Along with the good news on hospitalizations, reported COVID-19 infections also have dropped precipitously in recent weeks, the OHA said.
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.
In Deschutes County, cases have fallen by 88% over the last five weeks.
The emergency declaration, which was first announced in March 2020, has been the legal underpinning for the executive orders the governor has issued throughout the pandemic — including orders surrounding reopening the state, vaccine mandates, childcare, liability protections for schools, and higher education operations.
“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,” Brown said in a statement. “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.”