Oregon Tried to Innovate a Policy for Determining Who Still Has to Wear a Mask. It Bombed.

A May 25 letter signed by 10 national business associations to top Biden administration officials called Oregon’s requirement for shops to check vaccine cards “alarming.”

No Mask Police NO MASK POLICE: Retailers balked at the idea of their employees checking vaccination cards. (Brian Burk)

On May 18, Gov. Kate Brown offered Oregon businesses a choice not available anywhere else in the nation: They could allow vaccinated patrons not to wear their masks—after checking vaccine cards at the door.

Two weeks later, the verdict is clear: a resounding thumbs down. Not a single major retailer or venue in the Portland metro area has taken Brown up on the offer.

Business owners don’t want to ask for proof.

“I just don’t believe that it’s a private citizen’s responsibility to ask another private citizen anything to do with their health,” says Rep. Daniel Bonham (R-The Dalles), who owns Maupin’s Stoves & Spas, which sells wood stoves, hot tubs and barbecues. “Most people believe that they’ve got that right to privacy. You’re putting that frontline worker in a really awkward spot with some people that are very passionate on both extremes of this issue.”

In all, 31 states no longer require anyone to wear a mask indoors, if they ever did. Four states still require masks for everyone. But Oregon appears to be the outlier among the 15 remaining states that require masks indoors only for the unvaccinated.

In the other 14 states, masking up is based on an honor system. That’s what federal officials proposed, too. Only Oregon required businesses to card people.

A May 25 letter signed by 10 national business associations to top Biden administration officials called Oregon’s requirement for shops to check vaccine cards “alarming.” The letter’s signatories ranged from the National Grocers Association to the National Association of Truck Stop Operators.

“Policies like Oregon’s will risk the safety and well-being of employees,” the letter states. “We strongly urge the Centers for Disease Control, Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Department of Health and Human Services to recognize the peril that these types of policies will create for employees and make public statements emphasizing that state and local rules should not place the burden of verifying vaccination on employees. If Oregon’s policy remains in place or, worse yet, spreads to other jurisdictions, it will put America’s labor force at risk.”

Oregon’s policy put retail shops on a collision course with shoppers.

“The burden to verify a customers’ vaccination status is on the employees of a store,” says Jennifer Hatcher, chief public policy officer for FMI, the Food Industry Association, a national group of supermarkets and wholesalers that signed the letter. “That makes no sense at all. It’s likely to cause confrontations in a store, and that’s the last thing we want to happen.”

The national message that it’s safe to go out with a mask creates further conflict.

“We can’t ignore President Biden, appearing in a press conference without a mask on, saying we’re returning to normal,” says Amanda Dalton, president of the Northwest Grocery Association. “The public knows that, and the workers are facing off with that angry public at the door.”

That’s led to a twist ending: In Portland, at least, most everyone is still wearing their masks indoors. There are none of the fierce battles of last spring to push people into wearing a mask. In effect, the old masking rules are dragging into summer because nobody wants to risk conflict.

The governor isn’t willing to change course quite yet, but officials in her office admit checking vaccine cards wasn’t a popular idea.

“Oregon’s guidance was meant to give businesses options in reacting to the CDC’s announcement, and to give them a choice between implementing new verification procedures or keeping their current health and safety measures in place,” says Brown spokesman Charles Boyle. “The majority of businesses are choosing to continue requiring masks. Our office has heard the concerns from the business community, retail workers, and others loud and clear, and we are committed to working to continue to refine our approach.”

Critics of the governor point to Washington state’s adoption of the honor system, allowing people to take off their masks when they have been vaccinated.

Boyle says the governor is adapting to criticism, citing the announcement of a new model for vaccinated sections in businesses and venues that would allow them to increase capacity. “Starting this week, with vaccine verification in place, businesses and other venues can increase their maximum capacity,” Boyle notes.

Indeed, the Portland Trail Blazers are offering a vaccinated-only section at playoff games, which will allow them to increase capacity at Moda Center, with no social distancing required.

But if the idea behind a carding requirement was that vaccination has its privileges, the Blazers didn’t play ball. They’re still requiring masks for everyone, even those vaccinated. (The state would have allowed them to forgo the mask requirement.)

“While COVID-19 vaccines are not 100% effective, we are choosing to require masks to make this experience as safe as possible for everyone,” says Blazers spokeswoman Ashley Clinkscale.

One prominent business tried to implement the governor’s policy: the Salem area’s beloved Enchanted Forest amusement park. It was met with complaints and threats of violence.

“We had to think of our employees’ safety,” co-manager Susan Vaslev told Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Think Out Loud, declining to specify. “We have to think of the safety of the guests in our park. And that was in question with the threats we’re getting.”

Masks, of course, have become a political wedge issue. Vaccines, too. The underlying culture war made asking for proof of vaccination to remove a mask particularly difficult.

“Even a year ago, it was hard,” grocery association president Dalton says of mask requirements. “We were faced with some of the same opposition that we are now, but the difference is: You now have a year’s worth of politics attached to that mask.”

Of course, a vaccination card is a piece of paper that also relies on trust. Notably, when vaccines were in short supply, the state’s largest vaccination clinic, at the Oregon Convention Center, did not consider cards given out after a first dose sufficient proof that someone was in fact scheduled for a second appointment. They still had to show an email or QR code to sign in.

So grocers wonder why they were told to trust a piece of paper.

“We have absolutely no way to verify that,” says Dalton. “So then it begs the question: Why are we putting business and retail owners and our frontline workers in this position, a year into this pandemic, on top of everything else?”

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