Oregon’s indoor mask mandate ends at 11:59 p.m. Friday. Come Saturday, workers and customers across the state will show up at grocery stores, restaurants, and gyms with bare faces — if they weren’t doing so already.
That worries Zach Gilmour, owner of Zach’s Bikes on Main Street in Klamath Falls. He’s undergoing chemotherapy for cancer.
“I have no real immune system,” he said. “You catch COVID and it’s not ‘could be’ serious, it is definitely serious.”
Oregonians have been required to wear masks in indoor public spaces since at least July 2020 — minus a brief pause last summer that was undone by the delta variant. After Friday, masks will still be required on public transportation and in health care settings.
But for Main Street businesses across the state, the end of the mask mandate is a major turning point. At small businesses that have long relied on in-person interactions, it’s a moment of celebration, transition and concern.
Immunocompromised on Main Street in Klamath Falls
Gilmour found the mask mandate impossible to fully enforce on Main Street in Klamath Falls. Fear of the coronavirus forced him out of his bike shop months ago. Now, he only goes in when it’s closed. He hasn’t greeted customers in person since November.
“It’s pretty tough because I’ve always prided myself on having that face-to-face interaction with my customers,” Gilmour said.
The end of the mask mandate complicates his return to the shop, even as the busy spring and summer seasons approach. “I’m kind of afraid,” he said.
But he has a serious to-do list first: Finish chemotherapy, get another booster shot, rebuild his immune system.
New masking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention aims to make it easier for most Americans to live with the coronavirus. According to the CDC, it’s now safe enough for low-risk people in almost all Oregon counties to take off their masks inside. And this week, COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state fell to their lowest level since July 2021.
At Angel Ink Tattoo on Main Street in Oregon City, tattoo artist and owner Shawna Holder is on board.
“Let’s take the mask off,” she said. “I’m over it. I feel like, let’s learn how to live with COVID.”
Living with the coronavirus on Main Street in Oregon City
For Holder, living with the coronavirus means she’s checked the boxes. Vaccinated. Boosted. Had COVID-19. Worn a mask and expected the same of her customers. As a business owner, she wants her customers to feel safe. Personally, she’s missed seeing people smile.
“It will be nice to relax,” she said through her N95. She was touching up a tattoo for a client whose mask, inches away, read SOCIAL DISTANCING EXPERT.
That client, Chuck Miller, said COVID-19 had sickened him for seven weeks. “That thing just tore me up,” he said.
But Miller was used to going without a mask in his hometown of Molalla. He was already living with the virus.
“If you’re feeling sick, don’t go into the public. Don’t be that type of person that you’re selfish like that. But I need a mask off,” he said.
Right across Main Street, at Black Ink Coffee, owner Rolland Walsh felt a different relief at the end of the mask mandate: He’d no longer have to enforce it.
After nearly two years, he said, his employees were weary.
“They’ve been called names. They’ve had coffee thrown at them. They’ve had people yell at them,” Walsh said. “Fellow business owners on the street have come and yelled at our employees for enforcing mask mandates.”
It was hard, he said, to have Main Street businesses at odds about how — or whether — to uphold the mandate. And it confused customers.
“If there’s one thing I’ll miss the least of COVID-times it is saying, ‘Do you have a mask? Would you please put it on? How about over your nose?’” Walsh said.
Balancing hope and grief on Main Street in Portland
Cody Stigall is a manager at Coava Coffee Roasters on the corner of Southeast Main Street and Grand Avenue in Portland.
He felt both hesitation and relief when he heard the mask mandate was ending. Hesitation that a new coronavirus variant could swamp hospitals again and masks would return. Relief that, at least for now, he can stop wearing one every day.
“I miss seeing people’s faces. And miss seeing people’s smiles. And I just miss that connection. With customers and with my co-workers,” he said.
Stigall and his wife, who are vaccinated and boosted, got COVID-19 along with their three-year-old son during the omicron surge. And that experience of getting the virus, and getting through the virus, was meaningful. Stigall’s not as worried now. The shop’s big, open layout is also reassuring.
So Stigall is optimistic about moving forward, despite enduring the virus’s toll.
“My dad actually passed away from COVID back in November of ‘20,” he said.
That was before vaccines were available.
“That experience of losing my dad changed my perception of COVID and I’ve taken it very serious for a long time. And have been very cautious and I still got it. But I was lucky enough to be OK. So, I’m just thankful for that,” Stigall said.
Maybe the end of the mask mandate, he said, is the light at the end of the tunnel for COVID-19 restrictions.
As the clock ticked down to the mandate’s end, Paul Strobel, a State Farm insurance agent on Main Street in Estacada, also felt positive.
“Come Monday, we’ll take down our Masks Required sign and look forward to seeing people’s smiles again,” he said.
And if a new variant should again threaten hospital capacity and force a new round of pandemic restrictions?
“If things change,” he said, “we’ll put the Masks Required sign back up.”