Oregon’s indoor mask mandate ends at 11:59pm on March 11. For the most part, businesses will have the option to stop requiring their customers to wear masks. There are exceptions for health care settings and public transportation, including the Portland International Airport, where masks will be required through at least April 18. We hear reflections from a number of business owners and an epidemiologist about what to expect as the state makes this change.
Our guests are Jeri McMaster, founder and owner of the Chalk School of Movement and the Power Station gyms in Hood River; Washington County Chief Epidemiologist Kim Repp; Rum Club owner Michael Shea; Kama Simonds, the media relations manager for the Port of Portland; and Anne Barwick, president of Sheridan Fruit Company, a grocery store in SE Portland.
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Note: This transcript was computer generated and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. The indoor mask mandates in Oregon and Washington are going away in less than 12 hours, meaning by tomorrow Hawaii will be the only state in the country with a mask mandate. Theirs is going away in about two weeks. Of course, Oregon did drop its mandate once before. The requirement was retired for about six weeks this past summer, before the delta variant arrived. But this time feels different. State health officials have said they are unlikely to bring the mandate back. That means it’s up to individual business owners and employers to decide for themselves what rules to put in place. We’re going to get a variety of perspectives on this right now, including the voice of an epidemiologist. And in the second half of the show, we’ll hear from three Oregonians who are all immuno-compromised. We start right now with Jeri McMaster in Hood River. She owns a gym for adults called The Power Station and the Chalk School of Movement. That’s a gymnastics and parkour gym for kids. Jeri McMaster, welcome.
Jeri McMaster: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
Miller: How do you feel right now about the end of the mask mandate?
McMaster: Very excited. We’re happy for the end of the mandate.
McMaster: Obviously just what I do for a living, running a gymnastics gym for parkour and gymnastics and also a gym where people work out pretty intensely. It’ll be a relief to be able to let the masks go.
Miller: What’s it been like for adults, say, on treadmills to have a mask on all the time?
McMaster: They don’t love it. It’s definitely a little rough. I do remember two years ago when we found it nearly impossible. We’ve adapted, obviously everyone’s gotten a lot better at it and people have tested a million different masks and kind of figured out what worked for them. At least at my gym, most people are going to be pretty happy to not have them anymore.
Miller: And what about kids? Can kids do gymnastics and tumble around and bounce off walls – which is my definition of parkour – can they do all of that with masks on?
McMaster: They can do it. We figured it out for sure. The mandate has always said that they can remove a mask if they’re doing something that would be potentially dangerous. So we do have those moments. Obviously we’re not going to have someone going full send on a trampoline or on uneven bars where they could possibly get blinded by the mask. But otherwise we’ve figured it out.
Miller: PBS business reporter Kate Davidson talked to store owners all across Oregon, various main streets, literally main streets in a bunch of different cities, people who run coffee shops and a bike shop in a tattoo shop, an insurance store. And it was really striking how many of them in these really different venues, they all said that they are looking forward to seeing people’s smiles again. I’m curious if you feel that way?
McMaster: Yeah, absolutely. I’ve definitely got people that I don’t even recognize. There is that level of like we’ve gotten so used to only seeing people’s eyes, that I’ve been caught off guard by customers that you know. It’ll be exciting to be able to see everybody’s full faces again.
Miller: Do you think that you’re going to see an increase in business from people who made the decision to not work out inside if it meant having to wear a mask?
McMaster: Yes, I know that I am.
Miller: What about the flip side? Have you heard from customers who for a variety of reasons, would feel more comfortable, not just wearing masks themselves, but if the people around them are wearing masks as they breathe out a lot?
McMaster: I imagine that that is probably true. I haven’t been directly contacted by anyone regarding that specifically. But I imagine that’s certainly going to be true. We’ve sent out notices to the gyms that obviously masks are still optional and we’re a supportive environment of whatever is best for everyone’s families and their own lives.
Miller: Are there any air handling or other sort of infrastructural changes that you put in place because of the pandemic that are going to stay in place?
McMaster: Yeah, we’ve already invested that money and that infrastructure and whatnot. So we’ll continue. We bought multiple industrial sized air scrubbers and other gigantic fan-type things that circulate and ceiling fans and things like that. We’ll keep all that. We’ve already bought it, and we prefer to not get sick no matter what the situation is. So we’ll definitely keep using that stuff.
Miller: Jeri, thanks very much.
McMaster: Thank you.
Miller: Jeri McMaster owns the Power Station and the Chalk School of Movement gyms for adults and for kids, both in Hood River. Kim Repp joins us now. She is the chief epidemiologist for Washington County. Kim Repp, welcome back.
Kim Repp: Thank you, I appreciate it.
Miller: Can you remind us what exactly is going to change in Oregon as of 11:59 PM tonight?
Repp: There’s gonna be a huge mask burning out on I-5. No, I’m just kidding. Basically we’re going to drop our requirement for indoor masking. However, that does not apply to airports, healthcare facilities and certain other environments like jails or congregate care. But other than that, people will not have to wear a mask indoors.
Miller: They won’t HAVE to, they can, that will be up to them. And also importantly up to each business or each employer. What are the new rules going to mean in terms of isolation for people who do test positive or quarantine for people who are exposed?
Repp: Sure. So that’s another big change that’s happening. The difference between isolation and quarantine isolation is when you have a positive test. So [if] you actually have a positive covid test, you isolate yourself from even your household at home. Even now a positive Covid test buys you five days at home isolated, plus five days of masking. What has changed in Oregon is quarantine. Back in the olden times, if you were exposed to a known covid case, you were asked to quarantine, which means not go to concerts or those kinds of things to reduce the chance of someone else getting sick. Oregon is eliminating the requirement for quarantine if you think you’ve been exposed to someone with COVID-19.
Miller: And this is, if I’m not mistaken, this is following CDC changes right? Guideline changes from the CDC?
Repp: Wouldn’t that be nice? It is, except for one little particular difference: the CDC is still requiring quarantine for people who are unvaccinated. Oregon is not. So that is the difference.
Miller: What are you expecting in terms of case numbers, and then hospitalizations that follow rises in case numbers or drops in case numbers? What are you expecting in the weeks or months that are going to follow?
Repp: We are not done with Covid, and that’s the scariest thing about this for me is somehow people think because we change the mask mandate, that means Covid’s done. And no, that just means Covid has a lot more people to infect more easily now. We’ve been on a 90-day cycle six or seven times now. We’re going to have another variant, we’re gonna have another variant after that. So it’s not over. Now, usually the disease will become less severe as time goes on, but it is possible that our hospital systems could get overwhelmed again and then we have to step backwards. Hopefully that will not happen. But pretending that’s not on the table, after looking at what’s happened internationally, would be rather ignorant.
Miller: I know that you’re not in the business of hard and fast public pronouncements of, [say], you’re going to see x number of cases now. But just to simplify this, are you expecting to see a serious spike in cases in the coming weeks as Oregonians spend much more time together inside without masks?
Repp: The answer to that is possibly. The tests that people take at home don’t make it into the counts for public health. So, most people are now using the at-home antigen tests, they’re not going into the hospital. We only get the tests that come from essentially the healthcare providers. So that’s kind of an artificial sub-sample of what is really out there. But yes, I do believe we will see a significant increase in case counts about two weeks after the mask mandate is removed.
Miller: So from a purely public health perspective, as opposed to an economic one or a political one, how do you feel about the end of the mask mandate in 11 hours and 43 minutes?
Repp: [Laughs] Ah, I can confirm that it’s scary for us in public health, and for my team. It’s like you’re watching a train barreling at a wall at 100 miles an hour and you’ve been waving your flag and waving your flag and it’s still going and now we’re just sitting here and watching it. So that’s what it feels like to public health.
Miller: But if that’s what it feels like, what would it take for you to stop waving that flag? I mean, because we’ve heard from Dean Sidelinger, your counterpart at the state level who is also a public health official, who is saying that ‘if we are ready to to move toward a very different stage of this pandemic and that for the majority of Americans and the majority of Oregonians, this will be okay. Here’s why.’ That’s what we’ve been hearing from other epidemiologists. You’re saying that you don’t feel that we’re there now. I guess I’m wondering what it would take for you to say that?
Repp: Well, one, at the local level, I don’t have to answer to the governor or have that kind of political pressure, so I’m able to speak a little bit more freely based on science. Again, if the disease gets less severe, even if thousands and thousands of people get more infected, it may not debilitate our health care system and it might be okay. That is absolutely a possibility. That’s possible. But until we have a much more significant vaccination rate than what we have right now, there are way too many people that could be exposed and sick. And if you think about all the immuno-compromised folks – I know you’re talking to some of them today – they’re going to have to go out in the world with active covid cases coughing outside. So they are now seriously at risk. And that this burden has been put on them to fend for themselves, versus the other way around. And I think that’s kind of, that’s the part.
Miller: I wanna play a voicemail for you and for our listeners. This came in this week:
“Hi, my name is Molly from Beaverton. I have a child who is 20 months and I’m feeling really angry and left behind by these changes, because in addition to friends of mine who are immuno-compromised, my child is not protected from the virus by immunization yet, because we don’t have a vaccine yet. And my husband and I, ever since she was born, we’ve been on lockdown, we haven’t taken her anywhere and we finally feel like maybe we have a chance.
But now that masks are coming off, we feel very vulnerable. We’ve actually not even met our family, her family on the East Coast, because we couldn’t fly. Our hope was when she was vaccinated, we could travel with masks and safely be reunited. So, not very happy about it. And I feel like we’re not out of the woods yet. It is very premature.”
Kim Repp, what advice do you have right now for parents of children five and under?
Repp: Trust your parental instincts, do the best that you can with masking. The vaccine will come. They’re working on it. But she’s right, and I completely feel her pain. It is very scary for anyone to go out there right now who aren’t able to vaccinate their children. And putting a mask on a young child is a little bit challenging. So it’s going to be really hard to have people who have to go outside and risk their lives being surrounded by people who have chosen not to. So that’s going to be very difficult for us adjusting to that in this new world.
Miller: I’m curious about maybe a different way to think about this. If, over the next two or three months, there isn’t a sizable increase in the number of cases – you did say that it’s not clear now that we always know how many real cases there are – but to the best of our ability, if we don’t also see a big increase in hospitalizations, would that lead you to say that in fact this was a good policy decision?
Repp: If in three months, and it will be three months, we do not have enough cases, hospitalizations or death to impact our systems, we’re in the clear. If we have three months of low. And now we’re going into the sunny season-ish, so we might be able to have a lot more people outdoors. That’s going to help. But until we have a flat line of three months, this isn’t over.
Miller: Kim Repp, thanks very much for your time. I appreciate it.
Repp: Over and out.
Miller: [Chuckles] Over and out to you. It’s Kim Repp, chief epidemiologist for Washington County. If you’re just tuning in, we’re talking right now about the end of the mask mandate in Oregon. Michael Shea joins us on the line now. He is the owner and a bartender at Rum Club, a bar in Portland. Michael Shea, welcome.
Michael Shea: Hey, thanks Dave. Thanks for having me back.
Miller: Yeah, thanks for joining us. Once again, what are you planning to do as of tomorrow, when the mask mandate goes away?
Shea: Well, we will no longer be requiring customers to be masking up to enter the bar. However, we are going to take the mandate of masks for employees off the table. Although I do believe that most of the employees that are working here will probably still be wearing our masks for a while.
Miller: What’s it been like to run a bar where there’s the mask mandate for walking in. But then when people drink, they take them off, and I imagine that they’re off for the better part of the time while they’re there.
Shea: Yeah, absolutely. Definitely when we’re bartending, there’s only a couple feet of wood between us and the guests that are eating and drinking. So, one thing that we did institute along with a host of other restaurants and bars in Portland was a vaccine coalition and all of us are requiring proof of vaccination for entry just so that we have a second layer of protection for us.
Miller: We got an email from Katie Roberts in Portland about this. She wrote,
‘I’m noticing much chatter implying that wearing masks and asking for proof of vaccination go together as though no more masks equals no more asking for vax cards. But she writes with fewer people wearing masks and the mandate lifted, wouldn’t it be a good idea to keep checking vax cards even after, especially after businesses are not requiring masks?”
So you’re going to keep your vaccine requirement in place for patrons?
Shea: Absolutely, yeah, I’ve definitely been banging this drum the whole time for us. And in fact we did have meetings to try and make this more readily acceptable throughout the city. But yeah, myself and most of the other members of this sort of email thread for the vaccine coalition, I think most of the businesses that are checking vaccine cards are going to continue to do so. And most of them are also going to drop the mask requirement as well.
Miller: Do you have any concern that it’ll be harder for your employees to, or I guess what I’m wondering, is if you think that patrons will be more frustrated by the vaccine requirement with the mask requirement going away?
Shea: That is the concern. I’m kind of curious to see how it goes tomorrow night. But honestly, I would say with most interactions that we have at the door with people asking to see vaccine proof. I would say 95% of the people already have their cards out and are ready to go. So it’s become fairly commonplace in Portland especially. So I think it will be okay. And I’m keeping my fingers crossed for that [laughs].
Miller: As I think you heard, Jeri McMaster is excited as a gym owner to have masks come off. Kim Repp epidemiologist for Washington County is fearful about what it is going to mean for individuals and for society. Where are you on the worried-to-excited spectrum?
Shea: Honestly, ambivalent. Just because well, as I’ve said already, we’ve been seeing everyone’s faces already for the past. I mean, how long, since we reopened back in April or actually since we started doing vaccine requirements, once everyone started to get vaccines. So I think that was probably in the fall. Honestly it feels like we’ve already been living without a mask requirement. But the requirement for restaurants has always felt a little performative in a way. And like I said before, I think the vaccine requirements are a lot more important to us.
Miller: Michael Shea, thanks for joining us.
Shea: Thanks Dave.
Miller: Michael Shea owns Rum Club. It’s a bar in Portland. We go now to Anne Barwick. She’s the president of Sheridan Fruit Company. It’s a grocery store in Southeast Portland. Anne Barwick, welcome.
Anne Barwick: Well, thank you very much. Thank you for having me on the show.
Miller: What’s going to change for your store as the mask mandate ends?
Barwick: Well, we will honor and go in accordance with the mandate that has been lifted in Oregon and we no longer will require customers or staff to wear them. However, we are respectful of those that do want to wear them. Whether that’s a customer or our employees to feel safe and be comfortable with that [and] how they feel about it.
Miller: Do you have a sense for how many of your employees will continue to wear masks on their own accord?
Barwick: I believe more than half will have expressed that they want to keep wearing their mask. And of course, I encourage it and hope that if they want to, that they can do so.
Miller: What about you personally when you’re in the store, do you have a sense of what you’ll do?
Barwick: I will be wearing my mask because I deal so much with the public. I’m always over at this store where all of our customers are, so I’ve chosen to keep my mask on.
Miller: What’s not going to change in terms of the way you’ve been running your business? So the mandate’s going away, people can walk in and not wear masks. But what’s going to stay the same?
Barwick: We will still continue to sanitize all surfaces and counters and carts. We’re leaving the shields up at all of our registers to protect our customers as well as our employees. So really for us, the only thing that’s going to change is the mask requirement, but everything else that we’ve been doing during Covid, we will definitely keep in place for the safety of our shoppers and for our customers [and] our employees.
Miller: I want to run a voicemail by you. Here’s one that came in. “Hi, my name is Karen Mitzner. I’m 76 years old. I have a heart condition and age, of course, has weakened my immune system. I wish that people would continue to wear masks in the grocery stores and preferably grocery stores to set aside an hour for immuno-compromised people and older people, say from 7 to 8 in the morning.”
Anne Barwick, what do you think about that idea?
Barwick: I do understand that, and we do take that very seriously here. For those shoppers we will personally run their groceries out to their cars, so we still have the curbside service, will have deliveries at home if they would prefer. But I don’t have any current designated hours for that, but we would definitely accommodate them in every other way to keep them safe.
Miller: Are there challenges for you as a small independent grocery store rather than a large chain in terms of covid precautions?
Barwick: I don’t think so. I think we take it seriously, and from the very start we immediately were sanitizing everything and keeping the shields and we have social distancing in the stores. I don’t think it’s any different. We just followed all the mandates.
Miller: Anne Barwick, thanks very much.
Barwick: Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Miller: Anne Barwick is the president of Sheridan Fruit Company. It’s a grocery store in Southeast Portland. We are talking right now about how various businesses and employers are getting ready for the end of Oregon’s statewide indoor mask mandate. It’s ending in Washington State as well. We turn now to Kama Simonds. She is the immediate relations manager for the Port of Portland which among other things, runs the Portland International Airport. Kama, welcome back. What is the latest guidance from the T.S.A. that came out yesterday in terms of places like airports?
Kama Simonds: The T.S.A. has extended their security directive for mask use on public transportation and in transportation hubs. And so that means in the airport terminal and on airplanes, you need to continue wearing your mask through April 18th.
Miller: What about places like a rental car office, which is a part of the airport complex? It extends there too?
Simonds: It does. At this time, it is for all airport properties. The Port of Portland’s headquarter office building which, for example, is not open to the public, happens to be located on airport property. So right now we’re in discussion with the T.S.A. about the possibility of delineating between an airport space where the public can be, and office buildings. We’ve not finished that conversation. So at this time the Port of Portland headquarters building, the offices, the rental car center, everything that’s on airport property continues to have an indoor mask use required through April 18th.
Miller: And perhaps past that? But all we know right now is April 18. But in short nothing is really going to change tomorrow in terms of people’s experiences at the airport, even though they’re going to be big changes in the rest of Oregon.
Simonds: That’s correct.
Miller: So I’m curious about this, because for a long time there wasn’t a difference between going to the airport and going to the grocery store or the gym or anywhere else or to your office building. No matter where you were in all those places, you had to wear a mask. Now, it’s not going to be that way. The airport is going to be one of the outliers along with places like hospitals or buses, you’re not the only outlier, but you are going to be one of them. Are you anticipating increased pushback from travelers because of that?
Simonds: Not necessarily. The situation you’re describing, where the airport or the transportation hub is the outlier, that’s been the case in other parts of the nation. And with few exceptions that we hear about, we really do see reasonable, if not good, mask compliance in the transportation system. So we have a lot of signage up at PDX that directs folks to kindly remember to wear their masks. We have staff that do the same thing. We have masks if you’ve forgotten them. We can provide them for you. And we’ll watch this. Right now, it’s sort of a month difference in that time, and we’ll adjust our efforts if we start to see every third person walking in without a mask. But right now as one of the previous guests said, we’ve gotten somewhat used to it. I think that being comfortable doing that in the transportation system, and knowing that even if you travel to Dallas or you know somewhere else around the country, you still wear it in the airport, even if you spend your vacation or your business trip or what not without it in other places in that city. So, we’re hopeful that folks will adjust and keep a mask in their pocket so that they can use it when they’re traveling.
Miller: You said staff are used to this, in terms of pointing out the mask rule. Is it Port of Portland’s staff, or T.S.A. agents who have actually been the reminders or enforcers?
Simonds: It’s really been everybody. The airlines in particular have and follow this federal requirement across the board. It’s been operations staff, confession staff, T.S.A. It really takes a village and a kind gentle reminder. Sometimes all you have to do is a hand motion to indicate you’d like somebody to pull their mask up above their nose so it covers your nose and mouth. We all work collectively to do that, so that there are no problems.
Miller: Kama Simonds, thanks for joining us today.
Simonds: My pleasure. Thank you.
Miller: Kama Simonds is the media relations manager for the Port of Portland.