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EDITORIAL

Editorial: Muddled rules for unmasking add to confusion

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In this Jan. 13, photo, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown visits the Marion County and Salem Health COVID-19 vaccination clinic in Salem. Brown issued a warning Friday of a "fourth wave" of COVID cases in the state.

We have all longed for the day when we could drop our masks and breathe freely again, and now, with widespread availability of COVID-19 vaccines, we’re finally getting to that point. But we’re not quite there yet, and the lack of a clear, coordinated approach by government at the state and federal levels is once again adding confusion and uncertainty to an already fraught situation as we attempt to transition out of full pandemic mode.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week that fully vaccinated Americans no longer need to wear face coverings in most indoor or outdoor settings (with a rather lengthy list of specific exceptions, such as public transport, hospitals and homeless shelters). The announcement was welcome, but it also created uncertainty in the face of widespread vaccine hesitancy. In the absence of a vaccine passport or some other standardized means of proving one’s vaccination status, how can we be confident that unmasked people really have had their shots and aren’t just ditching their masks because nobody’s checking?

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who for the most part has been the voice of reason throughout the pandemic, unwittingly muddied the waters when he urged fully vaccinated Americans to “put aside your mask” outdoors unless they’re in a crowd. Facing blowback, he later made the rounds of TV interview shows to clarify his statement and pacify his critics.

Gov. Kate Brown immediately followed the CDC announcement by saying the state would follow suit on relaxing mask requirements for those who have had a complete course of COVID-19 vaccine and two weeks for it to take full effect. “Oregonians now have a choice on how to protect themselves and others from COVID-19,” Brown said at the time. “Either get vaccinated or continue wearing a mask and following physical distancing requirements.” That advice is exactly on point. The problem is, we know there’s a sizable segment of the population who have resisted masking up throughout the pandemic — and another large chunk of people who are reluctant to get the jab.

To make things worse, state agencies can’t seem to get their stories straight. The Oregon Health Authority, for instance, has issued a general set of guidelines that largely mirrors the CDC statement for easing mask requirements while the Oregon Department of Education has issued its own set for schools, which local districts must now try to interpret. And the OHA guidelines come with the caveat that fully vaccinated people can drop their masks indoors “in most public settings where vaccination status is checked.” The agency also noted that business owners and operators of public venues can maintain more stringent mask requirements if they choose. Oregon OSHA, which governs workplace safety in the state and has already imposed binding COVID regulations on Oregon businesses, issued a statement on Wednesday saying it would uphold the OHA rules.

The problem with those unmasking rules, though, is that they all depend on being able verify vaccination status and, as we mentioned earlier, there is no standardized government mechanism for doing so. That puts the onus for checking vaccine cards squarely on business. Under the OHA and Oregon OSHA rules, employers who want to let vaccinated workers doff their masks in the office (please, Lord, let it be soon!) have to take on the role of vaccine police and demand proof of immunization. What could possibly go wrong there? Employees of businesses that cater to the public will be put in the even more difficult position of having to verify the vaccination status of maskless customers. We have already seen a local example of how horribly wrong that can go: The Enchanted Forest, the beloved theme park that has struggled to stay afloat in the face of pandemic restrictions, wildfire smoke and storm damage, was poised to reopen this weekend — until it started receiving online threats from people who deemed the perfectly reasonable requirement to show proof of vaccination a threat to their liberty.

As weary as we all are of mask requirements and other restrictions aimed at keeping COVID-19 in check, we’re not out of the woods yet, and we won’t be until many more of our fellow citizens get their shots.

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