State OSHA Administrator Michael Wood is lobbying to make the state's mask mandate and its social distancing regulations "permanent" until the state feels the pandemic is no longer a concern. This is despite the fact that many states around the country are lifting their coronavirus-related restrictions.
These new rules will require everyone to wear masks or similar face coverings inside businesses or housing facilities provided by their employers. The rules also state that people are required to socially distance themselves. If these rules pass, OSHA will continue enforcing them until they are "no longer necessary to address the effects of the pandemic in the workplace."
Wood claimed the mask mandate and social distancing rules wouldn't actually be permanent. OSHA's proposal would simply be a necessity to address a technicality under state law that required workspace health regulations to be "permanent" to keep them from expiring. (Related: Oregon wants to make COVID-19 restrictions permanent and track all vaccine refusers.)
Other rules in the current proposal include specific regulations regarding workplace airflow, ventilation and sanitation protocols, as well as a requirement for employers to notify employees in case of an outbreak in the company.
The state first introduced its requirement for people to social distance and to wear masks in 2020 during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic. These rules are set to expire on May 4.
"As the governor's executive order is set to expire, the public health emergency remains a substantial concern in Oregon. As a result, it is necessary to extend the provisions from the executive order with a permanent rule," wrote OSHA in the summary of its proposed new rules. "The unique exposures created in the labor housing environment, particularly in working situations requiring large numbers of workers, make these rules necessary to reduce risk to individual workers."
During the public comment period on OSHA's proposal, the agency received a record number of comments from Oregonians. Many parents, teachers, employees and business owners have spoken up against what they feel is a significant government overreach.
Most of the comments were critical of Wood and OSHA, and a petition has already been organized. As of press time, it has over 62,000 signatures.
"These rules would continue to impose intrusive, burdensome and unnecessary reach of government into Oregon businesses, their employees, customer and client privacy and customer freedoms to conduct commerce without government interference," wrote Jack Dresser, the petition's author. Dresser said that an unelected agency like OSHA should not be given the power to permanently alter "any facet of public life."
Some of the opponents of the rules have also pointed out that it isn't clear how the permanent rules can be repealed. Wood's current proposal doesn't say how low the state's COVID-19 case numbers must go before the rules can be lifted. Other unknowns include whether a certain percentage of Oregonians need to be vaccinated.
"When will masks be unnecessary? What scientific studies do these mandates rely on, particularly now that the vaccine is days away from being available to everyone?" asked Republican State Sen. Kim Thatcher. "Businesses have had to play 'mask cop' for the better part of a year now. They deserve some certainty on when they will no longer be threatened with fines [for non-compliance]."
Wood said he will review all of the feedbacks OSHA has received to see if he can make some changes to his proposal to make it more acceptable to Oregonians. He is hoping to make a final decision before the current rules lapse on May 4.
Learn more about how Oregon has some of the most restrictive coronavirus regulations in the country by reading the latest articles at Pandemic.news.