FILE – Oregon Face Mask

(The Center Square) – A top Oregon workforce official is proposing to keep a face mask requirement in perpetuity. 

Michael Wood, the state's Occupational Safety and Health Administration head, proposed the idea last week during a public hearing on the matter. It would keep face masks the law until they are "no longer necessary to address the effects of the pandemic in the workplace."

Wood's proposal touches on fears related to a host of international COVID-19 variants from South Africa to the United Kingdom thought to be more infectious than the original strain of the virus. In Oregon, less than 1% of people fully vaccinated against the disease have contracted it. The Oregon Health Authority found that none had a COVID-19 variant.

Wood has assured the public that the face mask order could be repealed when case rates show it is no longer needed. 

"It will be a complicated assessment when we do it," Wood said. "I would say it is impossibly complicated to do in advance."

OSHA rules carry the same weight as law. They're written in cooperation with federal agencies and stakeholders in line with current federal regulations.

A Change.org petition opposed to Wood's idea has garnered more than 62,455 signatures as of Tuesday afternoon.

Under Gov. Kate Brown's orders last year, face masks are required for everyone in Oregon 5 years old and above in and outdoors if maintaining 6 feet or more apart. Violations of one of the laws carry penalties of up to 30 days in jail and a $1,250 fine, but Brown has left enforcement on individuals to Oregonians.

Oregon's current face mask order expires May 4. It can be extended no longer than 180 days at a time by the governor.

Businesses found in willful and non-willful violation of such rules can be charged thousands in fines—a scenario that's become more politicized as the pandemic has progressed. One bill in the Oregon Legislature would have the Oregon Department of Consumer and Business Services reimburse businesses fined for COVID workplace violations if they did not lead to any COVID-19 cases or deaths. The bill has not received a hearing.

Oregon is one of 26 states to have active face mask and social distancing orders in place. Thirteen states—including Texas, Alabama, Iowa, and Arizona—lifted theirs weeks ago.

Face mask usage is high in Oregon compared to the rest of the nation based on polling from last fall. But cases are back on the rise in the state where more than a third of its 36 counties are limited to indoor gatherings of six people, and indoor dining remains capped at 25% capacity.

While one out of five Oregonians are now fully vaccinated against the pandemic, the state is in a race against the clock to get shots into arms before a hot wildfire season starts.

Staff Reporter

Tim Gruver is a politics and public policy reporter. He is a University of Washington alum and the recipient of the 2017 Pioneer News Award for Reporting. His work has appeared in Politico, the Kitsap Daily News, and the Northwest Asian Weekly.