With gusto, an employee of a Salem tire store tipped down the signs stating that face coverings were required. Up went new notices with a hot-off-the press exemption: Customers who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19 can go maskless.
The new signs said nothing about individuals’ having to show evidence of vaccination, which the Oregon Health Authority is requiring before customers can forgo masks indoors.
As I went around Salem this week, I checked out the complicated, confusing mask scene.
At a salon a few blocks from the tire store, customers were given the option of removing masks if vaccinated. No one asked for proof.
At a major service station across town, employees were both masked and unmasked. At the Oregon AAA office nearby, face coverings remained required of all.
At the Oregon Supreme Court and Oregon Capitol, most construction workers appeared to sport masks, except when on breaks. Inside the Capitol, which remains closed to the public, Democrats, Republicans and Independents on the Senate and House floors spoke through their mandated masks.
Such is the state of inconsistency in Oregon’s capital and across the state.
For lawmakers, this week’s big news in Salem is they have a gazillion extra dollars to spend before adjourning next month, and taxpayers are in line for a hefty rebate. Among everyday Oregonians and businesspeople, however, the talk is about the latest gyration in the state’s COVID-19 health mandates.
Gov. Kate Brown’s administration agreed with the federal recommendations but then put the burden on businesses to verify customers’ vaccination status if allowing them to go unmasked.
The new rules were announced Tuesday. Neither Brown nor OHA Director Patrick Allen – nor such enforcement agencies as Oregon OSHA and the OLCC – met with the media that day so journalists could probe their rationale. That role was left to Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state health officer and epidemiologist, who stuck to his talking points throughout the 40-minute discussion with journalists.
Masks no longer are required outdoors. Indoors, there are two sets of rules – one for fully vaccinated individuals, one for everyone else – which officials hope will encourage more Oregonians to get vaccinated.
State officials went before a legislative committee on Wednesday to discuss the COVID-19 regulations. In addition, Allen told Oregon Public Broadcasting, “What we’re really trying to do is to assure that there’s a minimal amount of trying to check that people have been vaccinated rather than everyone just – whether they’re vaccinated or not – acting as though the mask rules have simply been repealed.”
Late Thursday, Brown’s office announced that the governor would hold a press conference at noon Friday “to discuss Oregon's ongoing response to COVID-19. She will be joined by representatives from the Oregon Health Authority and the Oregon Lottery.”
In a floor speech Thursday, Rep. Rachel Prusak, D-West Linn, said the new mask rules are creating havoc, and Oregon must give businesses the tools to verify vaccinations. She also called for the state to creatively encourage vaccinations, citing a car sweepstakes in Tennessee for vaccinated residents, a $1 million lottery in Ohio and an Ohio raffle for free tuition at a state university.
“We must have confidence in maskless people being vaccinated,” she said.
Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, called it unconscionable and unconstitutional for businesses to become gatekeepers on freedoms.
“Showing [vaccination] papers is crossing a line,” Zika said. “Oregon is the only state in the union to require you to show papers. This sets a bad precedent, turning Oregon into the only police state in our nation.”
No limits: Most Democrats have been reluctant to rein in the governor’s COVID-19 emergency powers despite grumbling that Brown has overreached. On a party-line vote Thursday, the House rejected Republicans’ attempt to force consideration of House Joint Resolution 18.
The brief measure states: “Be It Resolved by the Legislative Assembly of the State of Oregon: Pursuant to ORS 401.204, the state of emergency declared by the Governor in Executive Order 20-03 on March 8, 2020, relating to the COVID-19 outbreak in Oregon, is terminated.”
HJR 18 has been sitting since early March in the House Rules Committee, which is chaired by House Democratic Leader Barbara Smith Warner of Portland.
A similar measure, Senate Resolution 2, is in the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner, D-Lake Oswego. Independent Sens. Brian Boquist of Dallas and Art Robinson of Cave Junction are sponsoring the measure.
Boquist described it as a simple piece of legislation that, “Ends the governor’s emergency powers regarding symptomatic COVID-19 as the Oregon Supreme Court required; puts the Legislature back as an equal branch of power, which the Democrat legislators control; opens the Oregon State Capitol; and executes President Biden’s directions.”
Of twits and twists: In her May 14 newsletter, Rep. Jami Cate, R-Lebanon, wrote about the evolving mask guidelines: “I wish I had all the answers for you, but this will be another wait and see situation. And buckle up — if this journey has taught us anything, it’s to expect plenty of twits and turns — and unexpected bumps — before this is all over.”
“Twits” seems apt, although I think she meant “twists.” (Side note: I make plenty of typos, so please don’t take this as criticism of Cate or her staff.)
Her newsletter was titled, “Unmasking the New Mask Guidelines (or Trying to).”
About that bonanza of billions: When the pandemic hit, Oregon’s economy crashed quickly. It’s now quickly rebounded, unlike past recessions.
As State Economist Mark McMullen and senior economist Josh Lehner noted while briefing the Legislature’s tax committees this week, the recovery is uneven. Businesses have failed. Families have suffered. Yet overall, household incomes are 20% higher than before the pandemic, largely due to billions of dollars in federal aid flowing to Oregon.
McMullen called the economic growth the rosiest since President Ronald Reagan’s “Morning in America” in 1984. As a result, the economists predict the state will have an extra billion dollars or so to spend in each of the current budget and subsequent budget periods.
In response, Rep. E. Werner Reschke, R-Klamath Falls, urged the Legislature not to get drunk on spending.
Meanwhile, Rep. Khanh Pham, D-Portland, expressed frustration that Oregon’s unique income-tax kicker will return only a few dollars to low-income taxpayers but thousands to the wealthy.
And McMullen advised legislators to stash some money in reserves: “I would implore that savings going forward is a must.”
About the kicker: The 1979 Legislature created the kicker to prevent state budgets from ballooning when the Legislature had unexpected revenue. If state revenue for a two-year budget period exceeds projections by at least 2 percent, all the unexpected revenue is rebated to taxpayers.
“We really have to stick our necks out with an aggressive [revenue] forecast, or we risk giving away the mother of all kickers,” McMullen told legislators.
If a forecast is too conservative, a kicker could result. On the other hand, state agencies and schools might face cuts during the biennium if a forecast proved overly optimistic.
Liberal Democrats and their allies have sought for years to dump or reform the kicker, saying it disproportionately benefits the well-to-do.
Technically, that is not true. Under the kicker, the percentage of taxes rebated stays the same for every taxpayer. That is, it’s proportional. Taxpayers who have a larger tax liability thus get a larger rebate in terms of dollar amount.
The kicker amount won’t be determined for several months, but it currently is estimated at 13.6% of a person’s or household’s tax liability for 2021.