Cautious optimism in Salem as Oregon lifts pandemic restrictions

Signs on the door of The Book Bin in downtown Salem note continued mask-wearing is appreciated as Oregon lifted pandemic restrictions on June 30, 2021 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

As of Wednesday, residents of Salem and the rest of Oregon have a green light to host parties, pack into bars and stop wearing masks indoors.

But the official ending on Wednesday of most of the pandemic restrictions that have marked life in Oregon for over a year didn’t mean sudden, dramatic changes.

Some downtown businesses had white tape outlines on their doors showing where signs about mask usage had been posted until recently.

Katy Ogdahl, owner of Gatsby Boutique on State Street, said about half of her customers so far Wednesday had worn masks, despite them no longer being required. Ogdahl wasn’t wearing a mask and said she felt comfortable without one, but suspected people needed time to adjust or hadn’t heard of the change.

“People are, I just think, gun-shy a little bit,” she said.

Ogdahl said with all the changes in pandemic rules over the past 18 months, she has no expectation things won’t change again. But even when the restrictions where in place, she said she’s seen Salem residents come downtown for First Friday to patronize local businesses. She added that she’s seen more customers over the spring.

“It’s nice. It feels pretty normal now,” she said.

Gov. Kate Brown announced June 25 that she would lift nearly all Oregon pandemic restrictions no later than June 30, backtracking from an earlier target of getting 70% of adults at least one dose of Covid vaccine.

The reopening means an end to capacity limits at businesses and events, early closing times for bars and restaurants the state’s mask mandate.

“I am a bag of emotions this morning,” Brown said during a Wednesday morning news conference at Providence Park in Portland.

Her guests included Hector Calderon, the Beaverton man who was the first Oregonian diagnosed with Covid last February and recovered after spending more than two months in the hospital.

The Marion County Board of Commissioners cheered the lifting of restrictions at their meeting Wednesday morning and officially rescinded the county’s emergency declaration for the Covid pandemic.

Board Chair Kevin Cameron removed a blue surgical mask at the start of the meeting, saying he’d been the first commissioner to begin wearing one and the last one to stop.

“There’s loss of life here, there’s loss of jobs, business, there’s been so much loss during this time,” he said. “But there’s some good things that came out of it.” He mentioned increased handwashing and the ability to hold meetings online.

“It’s a day we’ve all been looking forward to for so long,” said Katrina Rothenberger, the county’s public health division director, who looked relieved as she delivered her weekly pandemic update during the meeting.

Moving forward, she said the county would continue monitoring cases of Covid and working to identify where people got sick, as well as ongoing vaccination efforts. As local cases fall, Covid will become more like other diseases the public health department tracks and reports, rather than an all-hands-on-deck emergency, she said.

“We stopped working Sundays and holidays recently, which was really nice,” Rothenberger said.

In Polk County, Commissioner Craig Pope said the most apparent change was county employees no longer had to put masks on when leaving their work areas. Pope said he and many county employees felt they were missing something leaving their desks without a mask.

“It’s a weird space right now where we’re all kind of figuring out: do we go without masks?” he said.

Cherriots will see few immediate changes, spokeswoman Patricia Feeney said. Public transit is one of a few areas where masks remain required because of federal recommendations, and drivers and passengers continue to wear them.

But there are signs bus service is returning to normal. Signs closing off seats for social distancing are gone. Fare collection, which was stopped last spring, resumes on July 6.

Masks remain required in Salem Health’s clinics and hospitals, and the health care provider is still assessing how new state workplace safety guidelines will apply in business areas where healthcare isn’t provided, spokeswoman Lisa Wood said.

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have been working toward and dreaming of a day when our community can return to a normal and vibrant life. So many staff and caregivers have worked heroically over the last year to care for the very sick and to quickly vaccinate our community,” said Cheryl Wolfe, Salem Health’s president and CEO, in a statement. “I am extremely proud of their dedication, compassion and professionalism in the face of difficulty. We must remain vigilant and careful, but I’m comforted that we are taking another positive step forward and am filled with hope for the future.”

AJ Klausen, owner of Vagabond Brewing, said Wednesday felt like “business as usual” at the brewery.

Vagabond stopped requiring masks for fully vaccinated customers in mid-May when Brown loosened the state’s mask mandate. Klausen said the ending of restrictions won’t change the way they’re operating now. But he said it does allow Vagabond to plan events down the road, something that was difficult with the uncertainty of shifting Covid rules.

“We (didn’t) even want to plan the events if we’re going to shut down or there’s going to be a new mandate or you can only have a quarter of the people,” he said.

After the yo-yoing rules in the past 18 months, Klausen said it’s difficult to believe this is the final lifting of restrictions. He recently attended a Portland Timbers game where proof of vaccination was required for entry. Being in a stadium maskless with thousands of people felt like “breaking the rules,” he said.

“It feels weird,” he said. “Hopefully, everything goes well. Hopefully, we can take the masks off and there’s not any major repercussions.”

Individual Oregon businesses can continue to require masks for entry if they choose. But Obadiah Baird, owner of The Book Bin, said in practice it’s not so simple.

Baird and his employees continued masking Wednesday, as did many of the customers. Signs on the store’s door said continued mask-wearing and social distancing were appreciated.

Baird said any business that chooses to require masks without a state mandate in place is opening themselves up to political arguments and confrontations with disgruntled customers.

“It’s kind of a decision between letting people in without masks or just having arguments,” he said. After discussions with the store’s employees, the staff opted to request but not require masks, he said.

Baird said people need time to adjust to the change and feel comfortable going maskless. He plans to continue wearing a mask partially as a gesture toward people who can’t get vaccinated, including children.

“It’s about my community,” he said.

For some Salem organizations, Wednesday’s change is a signal they can resume longer-term planning.

That’s the case for the Pentacle Theater, which has remained largely shut down since last spring. Executive director Lisa Joyce said the nonprofit decided on Monday to open its stage to a July production by Children’s Educational Theater, and begin planning for a live, in-person September show.

Knowing Oregon would end pandemic restrictions made her comfortable allowing those activities, she said, but it takes time to plan live performances.

“People’s expectations that you just flip the switch and you’re back for business – it’s not true of theater,” Joyce said. “We’re excited, people are excited. People want to come back. It’s been too long.”

This article was updated to reflect that Salem Health is still assessing whether to change mask rules in non-clinical areas.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.