Bath and Body Works in the Willamette Town Center closed after state restrictions were put in place. Gov. Kate Brown said retailers could open again on May 15 with social distancing in mind. (Saphara Harrell/Salem Reporter)

The clamp on Oregon activities will ease up next week as Gov. Kate Brown allows certain retailers to open, lets childcare and youth programs resume and sets a path for counties to edge closer to more normal community life.

Starting Friday, May 15, stores everywhere in Oregon that had been closed can resume business if they can comply with the state’s social distancing standards. This includes furniture stores, boutiques and art galleries.

Brown also said youth camps, summer school programs and child care centers could open with restrictions.

The governor, though, made clear in unveiling new measures on Thursday that face masks are going to be a regular feature of life in Oregon. She mandated that employees in certain businesses must now wear masks and that those businesses consider mandating masks for their customers as well.

And county by county, restaurants and bars can resume full service, salons can open, and gatherings of up to 25 people would be allowed. Which counties get to do so starting Friday, May 15, won’t be decided until next week.

But iconic community events such as rodeos and county fairs could be off limits. She said such large gatherings now prohibited won’t be allowed until there is a vaccine or treatment for COVID-19 and said any such events should be canceled through September.

"I will miss visiting our fairs and festivals this year," Brown said.

She said county fairs might function with only pieces of their usual events - as long as social distancing can be complied.

Organizers of some of the state’s largest events have already done so, ranging from the St. Paul Rodeo to Cycle Oregon. Most county fairs are held in July or August. So far, only Curry and Washington counties have pulled the plug. The Oregon State Fair was to open for its 155th run on Aug. 28.

Brown’s announcement continues her gradual steps to relieve Oregonians – a bit – from her “stay home” order of March 23. On May 1, she allowed some non-emergency medical care to resume and last Tuesday allowed some state parks to open for day use.

"We now have the opportunity to begin rebuilding a safe and strong Oregon," Brown said.

The governor acted as the pressure has been building from elected officials, business owners and business associations to reopen as other states have done. The pandemic has left businesses closed, thousands unemployed, and school kids trying to learn from home through “distance learning.” Traffic on Oregon highways is down significantly as travel has been discouraged.

Brown made clear that some recommended limits in Oregon won’t be undone anytime soon. Until there is a vaccine, "We will not be able to go back to life as we knew it."

She said Oregonians should continue to avoid travel and large gatherings, stay home when sick, and continue staying away from visiting in senior care facilities and hospitals.

She noted that Oregonians complying with restrictions cut the forecasted infections by 70,000.

But the directive likely to touch every Oregonian involves the simple cloth mask, now being made by the thousands by homebound seamstresses.

For businesses where workers and customers are in close contact, masks will be required for employees. This includes grocers and pharmacies and those in public transit. Masks also will be required at certain businesses not yet allowed to return to open status except in approved counties. This would include those providing personal services such as hairdressers and barbers.

The guidance, developed by the Oregon Health Authority, “strongly” recommends those businesses also require customers to wear masks. So far, Oregonians have shown a mixed reaction to earlier recommendations they wear masks, with some masking up at every public outing and others eschewing such personal protection.

The state now also is “strongly” recommending that masks be worn anytime people are indoors, especially where the social distancing standard of six feet can’t be assured.

"Face coverings are and will remain a part of our lives for many months to come," Brown said.

In prepared material, the governor’s office cautioned that “we will be living with the virus until there is reliable treatment or prevention, which is many months off.” The guidance said social distancing and hygiene, such as vigorous hand washing, remain “primary tools” for Oregon to combat the coronavirus.

“Every restriction we lift increases transmission and will increase cases,” the guidance said.

Brown underscored that in her comments Thursday.

"As we reopen parts of our economy, we know and expect that there may be an uptick in new coronvirus cases," Brown said.

Rural counties in particular have been clamoring for Brown’s permission to resume something closer to normal life. Brown’s staff said counties can submit their final plans for doing so by Friday, May 8, and decisions would be made next week ahead of the governor’s own May 15 deadline to allow such openings.

But counties will be dependent on their neighbors to get that green light. Brown has set seven conditions for her approval. Three of them must be met on a regional level, meaning a half dozen counties or more must collectively show they can conduct enough testing to detect a local outbreak, that hospitals have enough capacity for care if a surge develops, and that health care and first responders have a good supply of masks, gowns and gloves.

Contact editor Les Zaitz at [email protected]

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