Why a relaxed mandate could be a headache for Salem area businesses

Flowers, masks and health warnings were just part of the scene April 4 at Salem’s Saturday Market. (Ron Cooper/Salem Reporter)

Salem businesses are worried they’ll have another pandemic-related responsibility: becoming the mask police. 

On May 13, Gov. Kate Brown announced that fully vaccinated Oregonians would no longer be required to wear masks in most settings. The governor’s move followed the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention update to its guidelines, saying that vaccinated people could socialize and go about their lives unmasked in most settings. 

But Brown also took to Twitter on Friday to say that the CDC’s “announcement left many unanswered questions for states to sort out.” The governor’s office has indicated it’ll be issuing guidelines with details on how the new requirements will play out. 

“Until we have vaccination verification guidance and procedures in place, businesses should continue following current guidance,” Brown said on Twitter.

Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist with Oregon Health Authority, suggested in a news conference Friday the state’s eventual guidance would require businesses to verify customers’ vaccination status if they intend to drop mask mandates.

Salem business owners and business groups aren’t eager to take on that role. They say they’re in a difficult position in enforcing mask requirements, which has been a political and social faultline throughout the pandemic. 

Tom Hoffert, CEO of the Greater Salem Area Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses are just trying to keep the lights on while complying with Covid regulations and finding workers in a tight labor market. He said it’s unfair to now require businesses to verify vaccinations. 

“This is petrifying to businesses,” he said. “It just further compounds the challenges that businesses are facing to stay viable.”

Hoffert said some customers may falsify their vaccination record to avoid wearing a mask or others may disregard it entirely, opening up businesses to increased liability. He said the chamber is pressing the governor’s office and regulatory agencies to adopt “reasonable expectations for small businesses that don’t collapse our labor force into the mask police.”

Johnathan Thompson, the acting board president of the Keizer Chamber of Commerce, said he hopes that state guidelines come sooner rather than later because many people have expectations masks won’t be required after the CDC relaxed its recommendation. 

He said verifying someone’s vaccination status isn’t the “wheelhouse” of small businesses.”

“We don’t know if we can ask,” he said. “When small business owners start asking about protected health information it can get dodgy really fast.” 

Thompson said the chamber is telling its members to wait and see. Many businesses will just keep their masking requirement. He said that’s what he’ll be doing at Northwest Dental Arts, the dental practice he owns with his wife. 

But he said that stores are in a different position than dental offices, where masks are already worn by staff and must be removed by patients.

Dana Vugteveen, general manager of Salem Center mall, said the shopping center will require masks for the time being because he doesn’t have the staff to chase people to figure out who is vaccinated. 

“It’s just too cumbersome to say, ‘Please, show me your card,’” he said. 

Lisa Sherman, executive director of Salem Community Markets, said the outdoor markets her organization puts on are still classified as retail, which she said means masks will still be required. She said the markets currently don’t have the ability to check for vaccination status. 

The reaction from national retailers has been mixed. Costco said fully vaccinated customers could shop without a mask in states that had dropped the mandate. It said it wouldn’t check vaccination status but rely on its “members’ responsible and respectful cooperation.” Kroger, the parent company of Fred Meyer, said it would be keeping its mask requirement for now. 

Miles Eshaia, spokesman for United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, criticized the governor’s move in a statement. The union represents employees at many grocery chains.

Grocery store and other frontline workers have been tasked with enforcing masking and other requirements throughout the pandemic. Eshaia said that these workers will again be expected to enforce “public policy without giving them the tools to protect themselves or the public.”

“Telling Essential Employees to be the mask police and asking customers for their medical information puts them in harm’s way and is insulting after months of ignoring the needs and safety of the people who put food on our tables,” said Eshaia. “Oregon’s Essential Employees deserve better than they are getting from their government.”

Oregon Business and Industry is also calling on the governor and the Oregon Health Authority to update its making guidance so businesses and workers aren’t required to “to enforce state guidance that was in conflict with national standards.”

“The latest CDC guidance is welcome news for vaccinated Oregonians, and hopefully will encourage those who have yet to get their vaccine to sign up for an appointment as soon as possible,” Sandra McDonough, president & CEO of Oregon Business and Industry, said in a statement.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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