Oregon becomes the first state to require proof of COVID-19 vaccinations to go maskless in businesses

AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

While most states are moving away from mandatory coronavirus mitigation measures now that the pandemic is in its waning days, Oregon is bucking the trend. In order for a person to enter a business, workplace, or church without a face mask, proof of vaccination must be provided. Even though Oregon lifted its mask mandate for the fully vaccinated, proof of vaccinations will be the key to taking advantage of a maskless face. So much for the honor system.

The proof of vaccination mandate is a statewide one. Critics say this will provide additional burdens on employees.

Last week, when the CDC decided to follow the science and give its blessing to vaccinated people tossing away their face masks, many states used that guidance as a green light to do away with their mask requirements for vaccinated people. Some states put a halt to all mask mandates but left open the option for businesses to require them. Some governors, mostly Republican governors like Greg Abbott in Texas, banned local governments from mandating mask use, but businesses can still require them if they so choose. In Florida, Governor DeSantis signed an executive order banning businesses from requiring vaccine documentation. The point is, rules on mask use vary from state to state.

Business leaders are speaking out about concerns of the requirement to show proof of vaccination.

The notion of relying on the honor system, which some states and businesses have adopted, has raised its own questions. And business groups in Oregon expressed concerns that a mandate to check vaccination status could become — like mask enforcement — a difficult and potentially dangerous proposition for workers.

“We have serious concerns about the practicality of requiring business owners and workers to be the enforcer,” said Nathaniel Brown, a spokesman for Oregon Business and Industry, which represents companies like Nike, as well as small businesses. “We are hearing from retailers and small businesses who are concerned about putting their frontline workers in a potentially untenable position when dealing with customers.”

The Oregon Health Authority said in new guidance on Tuesday that effective immediately, businesses would be required to continue to enforce mask requirements unless they had established a policy to confirm proof of vaccination using a card or photo of one before individuals can enter the building without a mask.

Governor Kate Brown, a Democrat, declared that fully vaccinated Oregonians did not have to wear masks in public, with the expectations of schools, public transit, and health care facilities. Her order, though, states that businesses can only use the option of lifting mask requirements if they institute verification. “Some businesses may prefer to simply continue operating under the current guidance for now rather than worrying about vaccination status, and that’s fine,” she said.

Charles Boyle, a spokesman for Governor Brown, said that “businesses that do not want to implement vaccine verification can keep current health and safety measures in place, which includes masks and physical distancing for all individuals.”

Asked if businesses would face penalties for allowing customers to go maskless without checking their vaccination status, Mr. Boyle said that “in the past year state agencies have issued fines for businesses that are out of compliance with health and safety guidance.”

So, Governor Brown’s order comes with strings. It’s no wonder some businesses will just keep the mandates in place. High traffic businesses, like grocery stores, would be hampered by providing personnel to check vaccination cards. It would be time-consuming and stressful for employees.

With summer travel almost here, what about hotel chains? Most, but not all, have dropped mask mandates. The American Hotel & Lodging Association (AHLA) eased masking requirements but some hotels are keeping them in place. Several states also have maintained indoor masking requirements that supersede the chains’ plans and the CDC’s announcement.

“At this time, we are not asking hotels to require proof of vaccination status, but we do ask that all guests and workers, vaccinated or not, respect and honor these revised guidelines,” said AHLA president and CEO Chip Rogers in a statement. “Unvaccinated guests should wear face-coverings and practice physical distancing at all times in public settings.”

Hotel employees should continue to wear masks indoors, Rogers said, but AHLA guidelines would permit vaccinated employees who work outdoors or outside of close contact with others could work without masks if hoteliers so chose.

Several U.S. hotel chains this week updated their policies to allow vaccinated guests to go without face coverings in indoor common areas, including Best Western International, Choice Hotels, Hilton Worldwide and IHG Hotels & Resorts. Each said unvaccinated guests would continue to be required to wear masks indoors.

Other chains had not updated that policy and at press time continued to require masks for all guests indoors, including Accor, Loews Hotels, Marriott International, Radisson Hotels, Wyndham Hotels & Resorts.

As of Friday, California, Hawaii, Maine, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, as well as Puerto Rico, maintain mask mandates for everyone regardless of vaccination status. State mandates supercede the CDC guidance or policies of hotels in other states. Maine and Massachusetts are dropping the mask mandates next week and New Jersey plans to do the same. California will drop its mandate on June 15. Thirty states have no state-level mask requirements. No major hotel chain has dropped the policy for unvaccinated guests.

At this point, your best bet is to carry the vaccination card or a photo of it in order to go maskless. Patronize businesses accordingly, when possible. Most of this is just pandemic theatre at this point.