Gov. Kate Brown stands in the library at Lincoln Elementary School during a visit on the first day back to in-person learning in Woodburn, Ore. on Thursday, April 1, 2020. (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

As the state’s hospitals again fill with Covid patients, Oregonians will be required to wear masks inside stores, office buildings, museums, restaurants and other public places starting Friday, Gov. Kate Brown said.

Brown detailed her latest pandemic order in a news conference Wednesday, six weeks after she joyfully announced the lifting of Oregon’s pandemic restrictions.

“The harsh reality is that Delta is a different virus. It changes everything,” Brown said, referring to the more contagious Delta variant of the virus that is now dominant in Oregon.

In the weeks since Brown lifted restrictions, the number of Oregonians hospitalized with Covid has surged to its highest point since the pandemic began: 635, including 164 in intensive care.

That includes 61 people with Covid hospitalized at Salem Health as of Tuesday morning, ten times the number three weeks ago. Salem Health spokeswoman Lisa Wood said the hospital was “extremely concerned” about the increase.

The numbers led to a dire statement from Oregon Health and Science University Tuesday suggesting the state would soon be without enough hospital beds to care for heart attack patients, people injured in car crashes and those facing other medical emergencies “unless Oregonians take immediate action.”

The mask order requires adults and children older than five to wear masks in indoor public spaces statewide. That includes common areas and shared spaces in offices and workplaces.

Children older than two must wear masks on public transit.

The order exempts activities where wearing a mask would be impractical, such as eating or drinking, swimming, organized competitive sports and performances involving singing or speaking in public.

The order strongly encourages, but does not require, masks in crowded outdoor spaces such as music concerts.

Brown separately on Tuesday said she would require state agency employees to get vaccinated against Covid by Oct. 18 or six weeks after any Covid vaccine receives full approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Brown and Oregon Health Authority leaders did not give a specific timeline for when the mask order would be reevaluated or targets for rescinding the order.

“If we can get past the extreme lack of space in hospitals that we're facing in the coming weeks, and get back to a more manageable circumstance, I think we would come back and recommend potential changes to the mask rule,” said Pat Allen, Oregon Health Authority director, during Wednesday’s news conference.

Brown and Allen again urged Oregonians to get vaccinated against Covid. Allen said the pace of new vaccinations has increased in recent weeks.

Brown said her goal is to keep schools and businesses open without further restrictions. Following her announcement, the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association issued a statement from president & CEO Jason Brandt.

"We can’t overstate how exhausted the hospitality industry is from an unthinkable health crisis spanning 18 months and counting. A new statewide mask mandate taking effect in 2 days must not lead to any other statewide business regulations. The industry is nowhere near recovery and has a long road ahead after all statewide restrictions were officially lifted 42 days ago," Brandt said in the statement. "ORLA will work directly with Oregon OSHA and will advocate for a focus on ensuring appropriate signage is in place at businesses in addition to their oversight role for employee safety."

Brown said she acted as hospital beds continued to fill around Oregon, and after hearing on a call with county commissioners last week that few were planning to enact new restrictions. She repeatedly said she did not regret lifting pandemic restrictions earlier this summer and said the blame for the state’s current predicament lies with local officials who failed to act to curb the surge in Covid cases in recent weeks.

“For the most part, local elected officials were not willing to make the tough decisions, and I needed to make a decision to preserve our hospital bed capacity and make sure we had adequate staffing to take care of people who need emergent care,” Brown said.

Brown’s shift away from local control and management of the pandemic drew ire at Wednesday’s meeting of the Marion County Board of Commissioners.

After listening to nearly an hour of public testimony, mostly from people opposed to mask restrictions, commissioners unanimously approved a resolution calling on Brown to cede decisions over mask requirements to local school boards and jurisdictions.

The resolution also said Marion County would not spend any resources enforcing mask mandates, like sending police to cite people for going maskless. Commissioners saidpublic health employees would continue to work with local school districts to manage Covid risk in schools.

Those who spoke at the commissioner’s meeting included about 15 parents, educators and concerned citizens said they were opposed to Brown’s mask mandate and appreciated the commissioners’ efforts to assert local control. Some doubted the effectiveness of masks at slowing the virus’ spread, while others talked about the educational and social challenges.

“We are vaccinated. We have done everything the governor has asked us to do,” said Grace Wallace, a Salem resident who said she’s struggled to teach high school under Covid restrictions.

“Teaching them with masks on is horrible. It’s so hard. It’s hard for me to do it. It’s hard for me to look at the students and not see their expressions and I think it’s really detrimental to our kids,” she said.

One teacher and one public health worker opposed the resolution, saying masks were the best tool available to keep kids safe from Covid.

“The vast majority of our K-12 students are under 12 and ineligible to receive any vaccine which is currently our best protection (against) Covid,” said Kris Bifulco, a Salem resident who works in public health.

The resolution, put forward by Commissioner Danielle Bethell, was written in response to Brown’s Aug. 4 decision that all K-12 students and school workers would be required to wear masks in the fall.

Bethell is also a member of the Salem-Keizer School Board and teared up as she detailed the mental health struggles she’s heard about from students over the course of the pandemic because of a lack of normal socialization.

“This resolution isn’t about taking control or telling the governor what masks should or shouldn’t do,” she said. “Everybody has the choice to wear a mask. Nobody should be forced to wear a mask. You and all those that believe in it, I support you.”

Following the vote, Bethell told Salem Reporter commissioners haven’t heard concerns from Salem Health leadership or leaders of other Marion County hospitals about being overrun with Covid patients.

She said county employees with the Health and Human Services department are in regular contact with local hospitals, but any concerns haven’t risen to the commissioner level.

“We’re never going to make a decision that puts them at risk,” Bethell said, speaking about local hospitals and their ability to treat patients who need immediate care.

Bethell and Commissioner Colm Willis said county workers have been diligent in ensuring everyone who wants a Covid vaccine, masks or other protective equipment is able to access it.

Willis spoke at length about the importance of personal freedom in making decisions on health care. He said the county can’t protect people from every possible risk and noted cases of Covid are almost all mild among people who have been fully vaccinated.

“From a global perspective, this is not an existential threat to our community, especially with 65% of our people vaccinated," Willis said, referring to the share of Marion County adults who have received at least one dose of vaccine. "So it’s hard for me to say we need to do something radical and really harm people, take away their civil liberties when our medical system is able to treat the people who are currently getting sick with Covid.”

Commissioner Kevin Cameron, who wore a mask during Wednesday’s meeting, said county residents need to take personal responsibility and work together to make sure hospitals have the capacity they need.

“Especially with this variant, we can’t ignore that we have a concern about our hospitals being overrun, so we as individuals need to take personal responsibility,” he said, noting he’d worn his mask while shopping in several local stores this week. “That’s something I choose to do. Nobody mandates that.”

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

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