By Kirby Neumann-Rea • Of the News-Register • 

Facing the un-masking with relief and caution

Marcus Larson/News-Register##Sinell Harney and her son Juneau shop for gifts at the McMinnville Holiday Market in December. Oregon’s indoor mask mandate ends at midnight tonight.
Marcus Larson/News-Register##Sinell Harney and her son Juneau shop for gifts at the McMinnville Holiday Market in December. Oregon’s indoor mask mandate ends at midnight tonight.

Weary, yet wary, sums up how local businesses, schools and organizations feel about the end of the statewide mask mandate. The states of Oregon, Washington and California have jointly declared that after 11:59 p.m. on March 11, the mandate no longer applies to indoor places, including schools.

However, other state and federal requirements, such as requiring masks in health care settings, public transit, and other specialized settings, will remain in place for a period of time.

“For me, you know, we’re all a little tired of it. It’s been a long haul,” said Rick Washburn of Pinot Vista, a winery with a tasting room in downtown McMinnville. 
Harvest Fresh owner Kristin Schofield said, “I think everyone is just fatigued. I won’t ask people to put on masks. I’m tired of that. But I will wear mine. I feel more comfortable in public places, but that’s just me.”

“We won’t require masks, but we welcome it if people wear them,” said Jenny Berg, director of McMinnville city library, which has remained open throughout most of the pandemic.

“I heard someone say ‘take your mask off on Friday but don’t throw it away,’” said Dave Rucklos, director of the McMinnville Downtown Association. “I think that’s probably good advice. We’ve seen this thing ebb and flow for two years now.” Rucklos said the mandate’s end could positively impact the depleted work force and encourage a return to businesses, among those who have stayed away out of dislike for masks. 

“We have two types of clientele, those who really believe in the science and the masks and we have people who don’t believe it and who have avoided shopping here because of the mask mandate,” Schofield said. “What happens after the mandate is removed I’m not sure.”

“Overall my hope is that people are kind and respectful of all people’s decision to mask or not,” said Lindsey Manfrin, Yamhill County Health Director. “Our community has been through a tremendous amount of challenge over the last two years. I ask that we all show kindness and compassion towards one another.”
Manfrin noted that case counts have dropped significantly as well as the overall positivity rate and hospitalizations.

“We are not seeing strain on businesses and services due to staff being out sick. These are all good indicators that community spread has indeed decreased considerably.  Given this, beginning to relax public health measures is reasonable,” Manfrin said.

She added, “I think another really important thing to note is that OHSU modeling suggest that 86% of people in Oregon have vaccine-induced or infection-induced immunity to COVID-19 at this time. Again, we still need to pay attention to things like potential variants that may evade existing immunity but at this point a significant portion of our population has some level of immunity.”

The end of the mandate comes with cautions, as well as some public access limitations, in schools and government agencies.

For example, Willamina Schools superintendent Carrie Zimbrick noted, “We will continue to limit visitors during the school day, but will allow the community to attend indoor after school events without masks.”

Public school students throughout Yamhill County will have the option of going maskless when they return to classes Monday. The Oregon Department of Education released the updated version of Ready Schools, Safe Learners Resiliency Framework which makes all previously required protocols advisory.

Sheridan School District is still not allowing volunteers in the schools. The district Health and Safety Committee will revisit the topic in early April.

McMinnville School Board members voted Feb. 28 to remove mask mandates starting March 12, although they said they remain concerned about the virus.
Superintendent Debbie Brockett said her district will work with public health officials and monitor the number of cases in Yamhill County. If cases increase, schools may need to reinstate masks for a time.

Brockett said staff and students are being asked to respect each other’s choices. 

“We have to be continuously flexible,” she said, saying the goal is to keep students in school and everyone safe.”

 “Currently it is still recommended by the CDC and OHA that people who have comprised immune systems, underlying health conditions, are over the age of 65, unvaccinated or living with someone who is at high risk of severe illness continue to mask in indoor public settings. However, people must still remain aware of the situation as we have all learned it can change rapidly. If the situation changes, so should recommendations.”

 At Linfield University’s campuses, as of March 12, masks will be optional for vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals, with the exception of some areas designated as health care sites.

“We are encouraging everyone to carry a mask with them and respect the needs of those who continue to wear masks to protect themselves, loved ones or the people they work with,” said Linfield spokesman Eric Howald.

All seven school districts have decided to end the mask mandate when the state allows, March 12. However, all will continue with other COVID 19 precautions, such as frequent hand washing and social distancing. And all are encouraging children and adults to stay home if they show signs of illness.

Several Yamhill Carlton students said they are glad to be given the choice of wearing masks or not.

Siri Nordstrom said she finds the timing a little odd: Masks will be optional starting for just a week before spring break. She plans to keep wearing her mask, because she’ll be visiting her grandparents during her break and doesn’t want to risk exposing them to the virus.

Jordan Clements said he’s looking forward to seeing other students’ expressions once masks come off. It will make it easier to read social cues, he said.
Dayton Grade School Principal Dana Symons told the school board Tuesday that her staff is looking forward to not having to remind students about wearing masks.

Symons said a student asked her that day, “Is next week the time my parents get to decide whether I have a mask?” She answered with an enthusiastic yes.

In Dayton, as in other districts, school officials will encourage people to wear masks if it makes them feel safer or if they are immune-compromised. And like other school officials, those in Dayton said they want to make sure no one is teased or shunned for continuing to mask up.

Newberg School District and Yamhill Carlton schools also will be making masks optional starting Monday.

YC Superintendent Cliff Raever said in February that his district would end the mandate as soon as the state did.

YC parents had been asking to be allowed to choose whether their children wear masks in school. Some held a rally in downtown Yamhill Feb. 16 to protest the continuation of the mandate, saying masks didn’t help and were detrimental to their children’s health, learning and social interactions.

In a message to families, Zimbrick wrote, “As many of you may know, the Center for Disease Control came out with new guidance Friday, Feb 25, 2022. With COVID case rates dropping dramatically, COVID hospitalizations down and immunity levels rising, both Yamhill and Polk counties are considered to be in the medium risk category. This means individuals will have a choice whether or not to wear a mask in indoor settings.

“Recently we sent out surveys to students, families, and staff regarding masking in school, 88% selected making masks optional in school.  For individuals medically compromised it is recommended you consult with your health care provider in making the decision about masking.”

Amity Schools will plan to be officially mask-optional as soon as possible, according to superintendent Jeff Clark said.

“We are hoping that they will allow for total local control over this decisionmaking sooner than that, as we believe that Amity can be ready sooner.”

At Sheridan schools, masks are welcomed in schools and district facilities, not required. When riding the school bus, face masks are welcomed, not required.

“If we receive notice of a confirmed COVID case we will notify parents of possible exposure using district communication systems,” Superintendent Dorie Vickery said. Students exposed will not be asked to quarantine, but those who test positive for COVID will required to stay home for five days.

“As we move forward it is critical that all students and staff feel safe and welcomed in our schools,” Vickery said in a message to parents. “Thank you for working with us as we balance the protection of in-person instruction with management of our health protocols.”

Nothing changes for one business that has required masks as well as proof of vaccination for customers seated indoors.

Co-owner J.P. Bierly of Bierly Brewing said, “We will continue to require wearing of masks and proof of vaccination for anyone who is seated indoors.” Vaccine proof is not required for anyone sitting outside, coming in to use the restroom, or arriving for take-out orders, though they need to mask up while indoors. 

“We ask people to mask up because we have a child under five who is unvaccinated and it’s for his protection,” Bierly said. He added that the downtown McMinnville brewery is replacing its outdoor seating with new, coordinated and weather-sealed tables.

Gallery Theater in McMinnville will also continue to require proof of vaccination, or recent negative test, and masks must be worn upon entry. A change, however, is that patrons will have the option of removing their masks while seated in the auditorium.

Washburn said the mandate’s end “doesn’t affect us much” at Pinot Vista. “We respect peoples’ rights to wear a mask. If they are uncomfortable they don’t need to come in, but we don’t want to turn away customers. I’ll put on a mask for someone who says, ‘do you mind?’.”

Pinot Vista’s downtown wine bar is a regular scene for live music.

“We have live music in here and the bands not wearing a mask. You can go into restaurants and once you sit down, you can take the mask off but walking in you have to wear it. It doesn’t make sense to me. It’s an odd take on what’s happening,” said Washburn, who also makes wine in the family’s Pinot Vista operation south of McMinnville.

“It was hard when we shut down,” with no cash flow for the vineyard business, Washburn said. “You still have to take care of farm equipment and pay your workers.”

Schofield said, “A lot of our customers are seniors and the most vulnerable, and a lot of customers will not be wearing masks, but we won’t ask them to because we’re tired of doing it. But we do have people who come here to shop because they feel safe.

“I’m not sure. We’ve had a lot of seniors come in without masks already, and it surprises me.

“Hopefully it will make us busier, and hopefully they can get out more. 

“They’re going to come up for breath, especially when you’re working long hours in shifts,” Rucklos said. “I think that would apply to a business anywhere. When you’re indoor wearing it full time like that, it’s a challenge. From that perspective people will be happy about it.”

News-Register reporters Paul Daquilante, Nicole Montesano and Starla Pointer contributed to this report.



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