Oregon nears full reopening as ‘vaccine passport’ debate flares up


Vaccinated Oregonians can forego wearing a face mask in most places so long as they produce what critics call “vaccine passports.”

The new rule comes from the Oregon Health Authority's revisions to the state's pandemic restrictions on Tuesday in line with federal guidance from the CDC and Gov. Kate Brown. Private businesses, employers, and places of worship may set face mask guidelines, but only fully vaccinated people may go mask-free. They must provide proof of their vaccination to do so.

In public settings where proof of vaccination is not required, face masks will still be necessary, based on the CDC's guidance. Face masks are required at all times on planes, trains, and other forms of public transportation. On Tuesday, the OHA announced face masks would also be required at all times for all individuals in jails, hospitals, homeless shelters, and K-12 schools. The FDA has yet to approve a COVID-19 vaccine for children under 12-years-old.

The OHA defines proof of vaccination as documentation from a tribal, federal, state, local government or health care provider. That includes names, dates of birth, the type of COVID-19 vaccination received, date or dates given and their place of administration. Such information is included on CDC vaccination cards.

Aaron Corvin, a spokesperson with the Oregon Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, says CDC cards may be one option to check vaccination status if venues want to hold mask-free gatherings. Whatever rules businesses decide on, Corvin says, OSHA will hold them to their word.

“We expect employers to comply, whichever route they take–allowing the vaccination exemption or sticking with current requirements,” Corvin wrote in an email to The Center Square. “We will take and investigate complaints alleging employers aren't requiring face coverings, for example, or checking vaccination status.”

Jason Brandt, CEO of the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association, says there is no consensus in the hospitality industry about how to move forward. Some, he said, plan to maintain their mask rules until the state reopens. Other places may verify their workers' vaccination status.

“It's quite a mixed bag out there,” Brandt said. “We have operators who have committed earlier on in the pandemic to never ask for employees or customers vaccination status. For the most part in our industry, it seems like many are keeping with face coverings from the entry point to the point at which [customers] are either sitting at a table or entering their hotel room.”

Some Oregon businesses like Salem's Original Pancake House have not made up their minds about whether they will be verifying vaccinations.

“[Our general manager] is reviewing all the new things that came out,” said Katie, a manager at the eatery. “For right now, everything's still the same.”

Others, like Sybil's Omelettes in Salem, will be requiring face masks on site until the pandemic subsides.

“We're still going to be enforcing the mask mandate here,” said Stephanie, a manager at the restaurant. “We're going to until we're sure the pandemic's over. We don't have an interest really in checking everyone's vaccinations.”

On Tuesday, Oregon's 7-day rolling average stood at 567 cases, less than half of what it was the week of May 10. The OHA reports 331 people are currently hospitalized with the virus.

Brown's pandemic restrictions have come under fire from Oregon Republicans in the state legislature since the onset of the pandemic. The GOP made it clear that submitting “vaccine passports” to go mask-free was unacceptable.

“Vaccine passports are completely contrary to Oregonians' sense of privacy,” said Senate Minority Leader Fred Girod, R-Lyons. “This kind of dictatorial control over the everyday lives of Oregonians must stop.”

Oregon's new face mask restrictions face criticism from the Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank that first sued Brown last year over pandemic rules.

“The governor needs to immediately rescind this order and fully reopen the state,” said Jason Dudash, director of the Freedom Foundation of Oregon. “The Freedom Foundation was the first to sue Gov. Brown over her mask mandates last year and we're prepared to fight her in court over this ludicrous vaccine passport, as well.”

The CDC's COVID Tracker on Wednesday showed 40% of Oregonians are now fully vaccinated. Another 50% have received at least one dose. Brown said last week she anticipates 70% of the state receiving at least one dose by the end of June. The state is slated to fully reopen if Oregon reaches that benchmark.

Brown announced on Tuesday that Benton, Deschutes, Hood River, Lincoln and Washington counties would be eligible to move to the state's least restrictive Lower Risk level starting on Friday. As of May 17, all five counties had vaccinated over 65% of residents ages 16 and older with at least one dose. Preliminary OHA data did not include federal vaccine doses administered in counties.

The OHA reported 394 new cases and seven new deaths from the diseases on Wednesday, raising the state's total caseload to 197,787 and the statewide death toll to 2,601 people.

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