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A reason to smile

Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Stephen McCandless, shown working Monday on a set at the Craterian Theater, said the theater has “accepted the fact that there is no sweet spot in terms of making everybody feel both safe and welcome” regarding COVID precautions such as mask requirements.
Jamie Lusch / Mail Tribune Anne Robison, co-owner The Crown Jewel in Ashland, working Tuesday on a display case, is looking forward to seeing her customers’ faces again ... and being able to wear long earrings.
Arts community, businesses cautiously optimistic about end to state mask mandates

Although reactions have been mixed, local businesses and performing arts organizations are generally encouraged and pleased with the announcement that indoor mask mandates will end March 12.

Severe cases of COVID-19 fell so rapidly that Oregon was able to move up by a week its original date of March 19 for lifting mask requirements indoors. The official target set by Gov. Kate Brown for ending the mandate was having fewer than 400 people with COVID in state hospitals.

Performing arts have taken a big hit during the pandemic, but theater organizations that have union contracts must take union rules into consideration before making changes. Most such companies have been engaged in conversations with union reps since the state’s original announcement.

Oregon Shakespeare Festival spokesman Blake Zidell said there are no changes in store for OSF on the near horizon.

“OSF is maintaining its masking and vaccination polices for the time being,” he said, “as their union partners have not changed their parameters. And OSF leadership believes audiences are less likely to come back and attend performances without mask and vaccination guidelines in place.”

Oregon Cabaret Theatre hadn’t made a decision as of Monday.

“I have to abide by union rules and need to have a conversation with my rep about this,” said Valerie Rachelle, co-owner.

Jessica Sage, artistic director of Rogue Theater Company, expressed joy and relief to see COVID numbers falling enough to have mask requirements lifted.

“My hope is we can work collectively to get things back on track,” she said. “I have no doubt theater-goers will be delighted to return to performances without masks, and the actors will be equally delighted to see faces in the audience again. I’ve been longing for that for two years.”

Southern Oregon Repertory Singers’ policy is to err on the side of caution with respect to both singers and audiences.

“At this point, we anticipate continuing to require all attendees at our concert this May to wear masks as well as be vaccinated and boosted,” said Richard Seidman, Rep Singers executive director.

“Sitting in close proximity to others indoors for an extended period of time during a concert still feels somewhat risky,” he said.

The Rogue Valley Symphony Orchestra has observed all of the masking guidelines put in place by the state and the orchestra’s venues.

“We look forward to making masking optional for our audiences,” said Joelle Graves, RVSO executive director. “Always, our central goal is for our audiences, staff and orchestra to feel safe. Whatever they need to do to accomplish that, we support.”

Stephen McCandless, executive director of the Craterian Theater, said the board hasn’t had an opportunity yet to discuss the latest announcement.

“Until it does, our policy position will remain unchanged,” he said.

“Whatever the decision, I’m sure we’ll have some patrons who will be for it and some against it,” McCandless said. “We’ve accepted the fact that there is no sweet spot in terms of making everybody feel both safe and welcome, which is frustrating because we’re fundamentally inclusive.”

Local restaurants and retail establishments are cautiously celebrating the prospects of some normalization. They realize some customers may opt to continue masking for personal reasons, but welcome the chance to see smiling faces once again.

Dan Durant, owner of Brothers’ Restaurant in Ashland, is happy to hear the news.

“To be honest, I was overjoyed when it was announced earlier that the date was March 31,” Durant said. “So this is even better news.”

He says public compliance waned as the pandemic wore on.

“It has been increasingly challenging to enforce the mandate. You see that in the grocery stores and elsewhere,” he noted.

He believes lifting the mandate will have a positive impact on his business, as it did last summer.

“When the mandate was lifted the last time, it resulted in the busiest July Brothers’ ever had in its 46-year history,” he said.

Tom BuBois, co-owner of Louie’s of Ashland, a popular restaurant and gathering place, is delighted at the news.

“We are excited to be able to once again see our employees’ smiling faces and our customers’ smiling faces,” he said.

Larks Home Kitchen in the Ashland Springs Hotel has been offering only dinner service the past year.

“We had a really good 2021 and do not anticipate huge changes in the restaurant,” said Karolina Lavagnino of the Neuman Hotel group.

“We look forward to a very successful 2022 with everything going back to normal, with OSF reopening and travelers eager to return to Ashland,” she said.

Anne Robison, co-owner of The Crown Jewel in Ashland and Jacksonville, besides being happy to see customers’ smiling faces, also has a personal reason to celebrate.

“I’m looking forward to wearing long earrings again,” she said, “which are so hard to wear with masks. And I bet a lot of women agree.”

The folks at Northwest Nature Shop are pleased about ending the indoor mask mandate.

“Although the pandemic is not over, we see the lifting of the requirement as a step toward normalcy,” said Marie Uhtoff, co-owner.

“We are appreciative that throughout the pandemic our customers have been compliant with the mask mandate and respectful in our shop,” she said.

“We’re a three-generation family business. Masks have provided a tool to protect our family and our customers. Now that we are fully vaccinated and the omicron surge has subsided, we feel confident that we can take off our masks.”

A big pink sign on the popcorn machine at Ashland ACE Hardware says it all: “Coming Soon!”

“We had to stop the free popcorn during the pandemic,” said manager Kathy Trower. “So, we’re tickled pink (wink wink) to offer it again.”

The store followed the mandates throughout the pandemic.

“Whatever the governor said to do, we did,” she said. “We had our Plexiglas up early, before most stores. We made our own elbow door handles out of pipe.

“I’m fully vaccinated and boosted and wore my mask every day. We have 800 to 1,200 customers daily, and I never got sick. We’re in such better shape today,” Trower said.

During the pandemic, Grizzly Peak Winery has been able to host concerts, weddings, plays and community events outdoors on its spacious grounds.

“We even invited yoga and tai chi students to continue their practice on our lawns,” said co-owner Al Silbowitz, “since their studios were forced to close for a period of time. A return to normal will be greeted with joy and relief,” he said.

He’s confident guests will be delighted to attend wine tastings and indoor events again without masks.

“This will have a positive effect on all hospitality businesses,” Silbowitz said, “as people emerge from their isolation.”

Jackson County libraries have followed state guidelines throughout the pandemic.

“When the mask mandate was lifted back in July 2021, we removed the mask requirement at the libraries,” said Kari May, director of Jackson County Library Services. “And we will be removing the requirement again on March 12.”

As with businesses, the mask mandate has created some strain for library staff and patrons.

“We look forward to welcoming everyone back and resuming in-person events when we can,” May said. “We know that the kids in particular have missed our story times and programs.”

In making the announcement lifting indoor masking requirements, Gov. Brown also said she would end the pandemic state of emergency April 1.

“We can now protect ourselves, our friends and our families,” she said, “without involving the extraordinary emergency authorities that were necessary at the beginning of the pandemic.”

Reach Ashland writer Jim Flint at jimflint.ashland@yahoo.com.