At concerts, watching athletic games and public places that bring people together in close proximity, people in Oregon will be required to wear a mask starting Friday.
“The Delta variant is spreading fast and wide, throwing our state into a level of crisis we have not yet seen in the pandemic. Cases and hospitalizations are at a record high,” Gov. Kate Brown said in a statement announcing the new mandate. “Masks are a quick and simple tool we can immediately deploy to protect ourselves and our families, and quickly help stop further spread of COVID-19,” she continued.
While not required at private settings, the Oregon Health Authority is also urging mask use at private outdoor gatherings that bring people together from multiple homes, when distancing is not an option. The outdoor masking rule will not apply to people walking on trails or in a park who encounter others briefly.
The mandate applies regardless of COVID-19 vaccination status. There are exceptions, including for children younger than five, people actively eating, homeless people, and people engaged in athletic activity.
According to a spokesman for the governor, the focus of the new rule will be on densely packed outdoor events where physical distancing isn’t possible, not outdoor activities more broadly. A draft version of the actual rule hasn’t been released yet
Masks are already required in all indoor public settings.
“We are starting to see instances where cases are clustering around events, like outdoor music festivals, that happen outdoors. Wearing masks in crowded settings – even outdoors – will help slow the spread of COVID-19,” said state health officer Dr. Dean Sidelinger.
The outdoor mask rule comes as the delta variant is ripping through the state and hospitals are struggling to accommodate and treat record-shattering numbers of COVID-19 patients and high volumes of patients with other kinds of trauma injuries – from gun violence, car accidents, and summer recreation accidents.
Related: Inside OHSU’s fight to save the region’s sickest COVID-19 patients
On Tuesday, the count of people hospitalized for COVID-19 hit 1,000 people statewide. Prior to the delta surge this summer, the highest number of pandemic-related hospitalizations was 584 people, on November 30, 2020.
COVID-19 spreads when an infected person emits small particles, known as aeresols, while breathing, talking, singing, sneezing or coughing. If an infected person is wearing a mask, staying at least 6 feet away from others, and outdoors, they are less likely to transmit the virus.
Published research to date has found that COVID-19 transmission rarely occurs in outdoor settings. However, most of that research predates the emergence of the delta variant.
That variant, which is currently circulating in Oregon, is more than twice as transmissible as the original lineage of COVID-19.
“Delta transmits more easily in all situations,” said Peter Graven, the OHSU data scientist whose modeling of COVID-19 transmission is helping the state predict the weekly hospitalization count during the surge.
Related: The delta variant is breaking records and ‘clobbering’ Oregon
“The safest setting is outdoor, amongst vaccinated people, with masks on, (and even keeping distance if needed). If any of these were being followed closely the current spike would not be occurring. We need the unvaccinated in particular to follow these rules as they are filling our hospitals and we will not be able to care for the 5% of cases that require hospitalization,” Graven said.
“Outdoor events are not likely to be where most transmissions happen (except in crowded situations). The riskiest locations continue to be among unvaccinated people indoors with masks off. "
In recent weeks, local public health authorities in Oregon and Washington have reported two outbreaks in connection with outdoor music festivals.
The Umatilla County Public Health Department identified more than 60 cases connected to the Pendleton Whiskey Fest on July 10, a music festival attended by roughly 12,000 people.
In Washington state, Grant County public health officials have connected more than 230 cases in residents from across the state to Watershed Music Festival, a three-day event held at the end of July in the Gorge Amphitheatre.
That event drew more than 25,000 fans.
Concertgoers at the amphitheater had a history of overwhelming the small local emergency department years before the current pandemic.