FOX BUSINESS - With many states lifting COVID-related restrictions amid a more widely available vaccine, Oregon is poised to go in completely the opposite direction as health officials consider mandating masks and social distancing in all businesses indefinitely.
The proposal, which has many residents fuming, would keep the rules in place until they are "no longer necessary to address the effects of the pandemic in the workplace."
Michael Wood, administrator of the state's Department of Occupational Safety and Health, said the move is necessary to address a technicality in state law that requires a "permanent" rule to keep current restrictions from expiring.
The idea has prompted a flood of angry responses, with everyone from parents to teachers to business owners and employees decrying government overreach.
Wood's agency received a record number of public comments, mostly critical, and nearly 60,000 residents signed a petition against the proposal.
Opponents are also upset government officials won't say how low Oregon's COVID-19 case numbers must last, or how many people would have to be vaccinated, to get the requirements lifted in a state that's already had some of the nation's strictest safety measures.
"When will masks be unnecessary? What scientific studies do these mandates rely on, particularly now that the vaccine is days away from being available to everyone?" said state Sen. Kim Thatcher, a Republican from Keizer, near the state's capital. "Businesses have had to play 'mask cop' for the better part of a year now. They deserve some certainty on when they will no longer be threatened with fines."
Wood said he is reviewing all the feedback to see if changes are needed before he makes a final decision by May 4, when the current rules lapse.
The state, which has a Democratic majority in both houses of its legislature and a Democratic governor in Kate Brown, has been among those with the country's most stringent COVID-19 restrictions and now stands in contrast with much of the rest of the nation as vaccines become more widely available.
At least six states — Alabama, Iowa, Mississippi, Montana, North Dakota, and Texas — have lifted mask mandates, and some never implemented them. In Texas, businesses reopened at 100% capacity last month.
Oregon state officials said they have every intent to repeal the rule, and that decision will be made based on a complex mix of factors, including case counts, vaccination rates, case severity, and advice from the Oregon Health Authority.
"It will be a complicated assessment when we do it, and I would say it is impossibly complicated to do in advance," Wood said.