Gov. Kate Brown talks during a video call with regional economic advisors in the south Willamette Valley and central Oregon coast on Monday, April 20. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)
Gov. Kate Brown was in no holiday mood Wednesday, telling Oregonians to get masks on or risk seeing businesses closed and, now, possibly schools remaining shut.
Brown told reporters in a news conference that the numbers in Oregon related to Covid were headed the wrong way – too many infections spreading too fast.
She spoke to urge Oregonians to obey her new order that everyone in the state wear face masks when indoors at public venues from grocery stores to churches.
“I’m very serious about this,” Brown said.
Brown all but begged Oregonians to put on the masks to slow what state health officials say is an alarming increase in Covid infections. She said issuing the statewide mandate was meant to get Oregonians’ attention.
And she said there would be a price if her directive wasn’t heeded.
“If we cannot slow the spread of the virus, we will have to take more drastic steps” that include again shutting down businesses, Brown said.
She noted that several other states, including Arizona, Texas and Florida were seeing fast spread of the coronavirus, resulting in a flood of patients filling up their hospitals. Just as Brown finished addressing reporters, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered restaurants, bars, theaters and other venues closed in 19 counties.
And at the same time, Oregon health authorities announced a record number of new cases for a single day – 281. That pushes the state’s total since March to nearly 9,000 with 208 deaths among those diagnosed with Covid.
Brown said that if Oregon’s trend continues, the state would hit 10,000 cases within the week. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, state epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said projections show the daily count of cases could triple soon to 900 a day.
“Oregon, you have a choice,” Brown said in laying down a challenge to Oregonians.
She said wearing a face mask was the preferred choice.
Or, she said, Oregonians could conclude they are immune to the virus and that it is no longer a killer, meaning they shrug off her order.
Brown warned that Oregonians will set the fate of businesses such as restaurants and brewpubs that in recent weeks were allowed to restore full service to customers.
“They will only be able to stay open if you take precautions,” she said.
She also raised the specter that students might not return to schools in the fall. Across Oregon, school districts are hustling to cobble together plans for teaching the state’s 580,000 students in the fall by going back into classrooms and continuing distance learning.
Brown said the imperative now is to stop the growing transmission of Covid but if trends continue, the decision to return to schools in a matter of weeks will need to be considered.
The governor also again said Oregonians should plan on tame Fourth of July celebrations, staying close to home and limiting backyard barbecues and picnics to only relatives.
Brown, Sidelinger and Dr. Renee Edwards, chief medical officer at Oregon Health and Science University, put on a tutorial about masks to underscore why they want Oregonians using them.
The governor said her statewide order requires people to put on a mask anytime they are going indoors at a public place. That means groceries and retailers, restaurants and churches, she said. It also meant masking up in lobbies, elevators and restrooms.
The exceptions would be for children under 12 to 2, for those vigorously exercising while maintaining social distancing, and if medical issues would ensue from wearing a mask.
She said businesses are expected to enforce the requirement, and that she was confident consumers would only support merchants who do so. She said she didn’t expect business operators to be forceful about the requirement, and encouraged them to “de-escalate” if a customer refuses to wear a mask.
She acknowledged that businesses were in the forefront of enforcing her order, and she noted that disobeying it is technically a crime. She’s not recommending anyone call law enforcement to report violations.
“I do not want local police issuing tickets,” she said.
Edwards said Oregonians had been mindful of social distancing and mask requirements but research shows that in recent weeks fewer people have been wearing masks.
She said respiratory droplets from the noise and mouth get projected when people talk, laugh, cough or sneeze and it is those droplets than can carry the virus. Masks arrest those droplets, she said.
She also warned again that a person who becomes infected with the coronavirus may not feel symptoms for two or three days. She said meantime such an infected person carries the potential to spread the virus if they aren’t wearing masks and don’t stay six feet away from others.
Edwards said both the masks and social distancing are crucial to stopping the virus’ spread.
Sidelinger ticked off statistics about what’s happening in Oregon that justifies Brown’s order.
“The virus is circulating more widely,” he said, and the rate of positive tests and the percentage of cases that can’t be traced to a source are both going up.
State health authorities are seeing the fastest increases in counties in central and eastern Oregon.
Brown resisted saying what numbers of cases and hospitalizations would trigger her to impose new restrictions across the state. She said she would likely impose the restrictions the same way she granted permission to open up under phases – by county and by region.