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County commissioners oppose ‘permanent’ mask rule

Jackson County commissioners Rick Dyer, Colleen Roberts and Dave Dotterrer
Rule can be lifted if conditions improve

Jackson County commissioners agreed Tuesday to send a letter to state officials voicing their opposition to making Oregon’s indoor mask rule permanent.

Oregon is operating under a 180-day temporary rule requiring that people wear masks in public indoor settings, including at work. The rule expires Feb. 8.

Oregon officials say they don’t want to make the mask rule truly permanent, but state law requires them to adopt a permanent rule if they want the requirement to stay in place beyond 180 days.

Oregon lifted a previous mask rule briefly in the summer of 2021, then put a new one in place when the delta variant strained hospitals in the summer and fall. The highly contagious omicron variant has caused another spike in cases and hospitalizations.

Before omicron arrived from overseas in December 2021, Oregon had expected to see low COVID-19 hospitalization numbers by now.

Some Oregonians are growing tired of what feels like a never-ending indoor mask requirement. In their letter to the Oregon Health Authority, Jackson County commissioners said a permanent rule isn’t justified.

“We, the Jackson County Board of Commissioners, strongly oppose the adoption of this permanent rule because the COVID-19 pandemic, while an ongoing concern, has not been deemed to be a permanent threat to residents or individuals in the state of Oregon,” commissioners wrote. “As such, a permanent rule is inappropriate to address an issue that is temporary in nature.”

They acknowledge the permanent rule can be repealed. But they said once the Oregon Health Authority decides masks are no longer required, the rule will remain in effect until a lengthy process is finished to get rid of it.

The county commissioners said in the letter they have steadfastly voiced opposition to state COVID-19 restrictions imposed on residents and businesses. They said following COVID-19 safety practices like mask-wearing should be voluntary.

During a Tuesday meeting held online, Commissioner Colleen Roberts said she has concerns about the state’s continued control over what should be people’s individual choices. She said the rules could stay in place forever.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said people should be able to wear a mask if they choose to do so, but he opposes a state mandate.

The permanent mask rule would generally apply to all businesses in the state. It would come with potential fines of up to $500 per person per day for noncompliance. Research has consistently shown that widespread wearing of masks reduces the spread of COVID-19.

As of January, nine states required people to wear masks in indoor public settings, including Oregon, California and Washington, according to AARP.

Oregon Health & Science University predicts the number of people with COVID-19 in Oregon hospitals will peak at 1,650 in late January, then fall off. That amount will severely strain hospitals, but OHSU said the peak forecast would have been a crushing 2,130 patients if Oregonians weren’t helping by getting COVID-19 shots, wearing masks and limiting their indoor social gatherings.

OHA is accepting public comments about the proposed permanent rule until Jan. 24. Email publichealth.rules@dhsoha.state.or.us to be added to the interested parties list and to submit a comment.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.