Update posted at 12:15 p.m. Monday, Jan. 24
The Oregon Health Authority scheduled two additional public hearings today to discuss the state's mandated indoor mask mandate and vaccinations. These hearings follow the Jan. 20 public meeting to review the future of the state's indoor mask mandate. A decision is pending.
Previous coverage posted Thursday, Jan. 20
Today, Oregon’s hearing on a proposed permanent mask rule drew a crowd of more than 300 people, opening the floodgates to a wide range of comments and emotions.
One woman struggled to hold back sobs during her testimony, as she described the moment her 8-year-old told her she couldn’t remember what the world was like without masks.
Another speaker said he has 40% of a healthy person's lung capacity and thus has difficulty breathing with a mask on.
“Free these childrens’ faces so they can smile again,” a third said, his voice filled with emotion.
Others took on radically different tones, threatening to take action if the Oregon Health Authority (OHA) goes through with imposing the new permanent rule.
“If you do this, we will fight to our death,” Nikolas, a defense attorney representing a client who violated Oregon’s current temporary mask mandate, said. “The farther you take this, the farther we will take it. We have nothing to lose.”
“We’re coming for you. We’re coming for your jobs,” Free Oregon Leader Angela Todd said.
Demonstrators involved with Free Oregon, a grassroots organization dedicated to upholding the mission of “fighting tyranny” in Oregon, took to the streets, holding a “BBQ Mask Party” outside the OHA office at NE 800 Oregon Street in Portland.
“Bring a mask and something to burn,” the event description read on the Free Oregon website.
Demonstrators chanted, held signs, and set a barrel containing surgical masks ablaze in synchronicity with the OHA's electronic hearing, which kicked off at 10 a.m. and lasted for several hours.
Administrative Rules Coordinator Brittany Hall led the OHA’s Administrative Rules hearing, discussing the adoption of a permanent rule requiring masks to be worn in indoor spaces in Oregon.
Hall led the meeting with the following clarifying statement.
"The temporary rule cannot be extended past six months, thus Oregon's temporary rule expires on Feb. 8," she said. "That does not mean the rule is permanent. The Oregon Health Authority can rescind, repeal, or cancel a rule when it decides it is no longer necessary.”
After opening remarks, Hall invited testifying members of the public to speak.
Opponents of the proposed permanent rule presented concerns ranging from realized sociological harms to the sole authority such a rule will give the agency, creating obstacles for the public to seek legal recourse.
Aden Nepom, the meeting’s first speaker, expressed concern that the OHA’s proposal would bypass public input, concluding with a statement affirming the importance of local decision-making.
"Allow small businesses (and) school districts to make the masking decisions that make the most sense in their specific communities and circumstances so that we can stop trying to stop COVID, which is a fool's errand, and begin trying to figure out how to move forward,” she said.
Matt Runkle, another guest speaker, put forth numerous arguments calling the logic of permanent masking into question, including a lack of sufficient evidence for mask efficacy, disproportionate impacts on essential workers, and the potential of lasting effects on a generation.
"Their (children’s) anger will be very justified," he said.
Runkle also pointed out that 42 out of 50 states have repealed mask mandates, despite news of the Omicron variant, and highlighted there are “no discernable differences” between states such as Florida, which banned mask mandates in public schools, and Oregon, in terms of high case rates, hospitalizations, and deaths.
Runkle underscored the inequitable outcomes of such a rule change, arguing that school children and frontline workers, required to mask up for 8 hours a day, will inordinately pay the price.
Others present at the meeting, in their condemnation of the OHA’s proposal, expressed their willingness to fight against the rule.
“I think it’s pretty clear that the public does not trust you anymore,” Portland resident Elizabeth Moore said.
Public health perspective
While Hall announced the OHA would not be making comments during or after the hearing, some public health experts have already stated why they deem the rule change necessary.
“Safe and effective vaccines that have been available for more than a year,” Modie told The Chronicle prior to the Jan. 20 hearing. “But there still are people out there who are susceptible to severe illness and even death, even with vaccinations. That’s why, until we see COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations go down again, we need to continue wearing masks indoors, in workplaces and other settings, even when workers are vaccinated and boosted.”
The first proposal for the adoption of a permanent mask rule in Oregon was issued back in April by Michael Wood, an employee of the Oregon branch of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
A Change.org petition to stop the proposal was launched shortly thereafter, receiving 71,000 signatures.
Modie said the OHA will take public comments into consideration and make its decision on the proposed rule change late this month or in early February.
Follow this developing story at thechronicleonline.com or in Wednesday print editions of The Chronicle.