Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s order that people in seven counties should wear masks when doing business took effect Wednesday, but it was each county to decide how to implement the new rules.

That means what the mandate entails and how it will be enforced will depend on which county you’re in.

Brown has said that a mask mandate would be “enforceable,” but that people wouldn’t get arrested or get a ticket if they entered a business without a mask on. Counties say they have received no additional guidance on how to enforce the rules. That’s left Marion, Polk, Lincoln, Hood River, Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties to decide how best to implement the order.  

Research shows that mask wearing can dramatically reduce the transmission of the coronavirus, which causes the exponentially spreading disease, COVID-19. One fewer infection early on means dozens fewer down the line. 

The governor’s order mandates masks in most indoor businesses and public spaces, including bars and restaurants. While eating or drinking, masks can be removed. To increase compliance, businesses will be required to provide masks to the public. Children under the age of twelve, people with disabilities, and people with health conditions that could be exacerbated by a mask are exempt from the rule.

If someone refuses to wear one and is not a part of those groups, the business is supposed to offer them a mask or deny service.

Clackamas County prioritizes education, not enforcement

Kimberly Dinwiddie, a public information officer for Clackamas County, said that county has no plans to enforce the mask mandate on an individual level. 

“It is within our authority to enforce that compliance,” she said. “However, the county is not going to go issue citations to individuals. Our enforcement will be education-based at first, and focused on the setting and establishments that aren’t complying.”

Establishments that don’t require masks will be provided with education materials or given help acquiring masks. If they still refuse to comply, legal action might be taken. But that’s a last resort, Dinwiddie said.

Lincoln County mandates more than the minimum

Lincoln County expanded on Brown’s order slightly. Facing a growing outbreak thought to have originated at a food-processing plant in Newport, Oregon, county commissioners expanded the mandate to include public outdoor spaces when social distancing isn’t possible.

Multnomah County encourages masks with friends

Multnomah County Public Health Director Rachel Banks said people are being encouraged to wear masks in private gatherings, too.

“When most people think of COVID-19, they think of ‘stranger danger,’” Banks said. That is, most regulations so far have been aimed at preventing COVID-19 spread in places where you meet strangers. “But what we’re really seeing here is social-network spread and close-contact spread, so we’d like to encourage people to wear face coverings even around people they know.”

A sign at the Woodstock location of New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore., alerts customers that they must wear face masks while shopping on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

A sign at the Woodstock location of New Seasons Market in Portland, Ore., alerts customers that they must wear face masks while shopping on Wednesday, April 29, 2020.

Bryan M. Vance/OPB

Multnomah County has consistently advocated against any kind of mask-wearing mandate. Local leaders have stated that while mask wearing is a key part of COVID-19 prevention, the county will not be enforcing those rules. 

“We think that education and access are much better tools than enforcement,” Banks said.

Since the beginning of the outbreak, Multnomah County and other government bodies have been communicating with groups representing communities of color about mask use. Many people of color, particularly Black men, have expressed concerns that they face a greater risk of violence and racial profiling when they wear masks.

Protecting people of color from harassment

Additionally, advocates for people of color raised concerns that any legally-enforced mask mandate could serve as another avenue toward overpolicing or harassment.

“We have communities across the country and here locally, who are really asking us to think about enforcement on a meta-level. And don’t want to add another thing where people could experience disproportionate enforcement,”  Banks said.

Oregon’s public health leaders have generally agreed that racism is a public health issue. Because of that, Lincoln County added people of color to the list of those who may choose not to wear a mask for health reasons.

Officials in Lincoln County echo the reasoning behind Multnomah and Clackamas counties’ decisions to not enforce the mandate on an individual level.

“We really need to ensure that we’re not stigmatizing that behavior, or having biased thoughts or actions to POC who are wearing masks,” Dinwiddie said, using a common acronym for “people of color.”

“And there are biased crime laws in Oregon, and people need to be aware of that,” Dinwiddie said.

But Lincoln County’s decision was met with outrage from the conservative right, after headlines declaring that they had issued a mask mandate that “only applies to white people” or that “people of color are exempt from mandatory mask policy” circulated nationally

The stories — and social media commentary — spread despite the easily-provable fact that Lincoln County had also decided not to enforce the mask mandate on an individual level, stating “violation of the directive does not constitute or create grounds for private persons or public employees, including law enforcement, to stop, detain, issue a citation or undertake any other enforcement action.”

“We are shocked and appalled at the volume of horrifically racist commentary we have received regarding this policy exception,” Lincoln County leaders said Wednesday in a statement. “The vitriol that county leadership, staff, and community partners have been subjected to is unprecedented.”

“The expressions of racism regarding the exception has created a ripple of fear throughout our communities of color. The very policy meant to protect them, is now making them a target for further discrimination and harassment,” said the commissioners. In response, some communities of color asked Lincoln County to remove the exception, and it complied.

Multnomah County’s Banks said she and other health leaders want to encourage businesses not to use face-covering guidance as a way to unfairly deny non-mask wearers of needed services.

Banks also asked that people avoid policing each other, or demanding to know why someone isn’t wearing a mask. Bothering strangers, she said, is not the way to promote mask use.

“It’s really important that members of the public understand that not everybody has the ability to wear a mask. So we really need to insure that we’re not stigmatizing that behavior and denying service to the disabled, or having biased thoughts or actions to people of color who are wearing masks,” Dinwiddie said. And if people of color are targeted or harassed for not wearing masks, or if the police are called on people of color who are not wearing masks, the harassers “would be subject to law enforcement.”