A sign requiring face masks before entering
Oregon will end its indoor mask mandate by March 31 at the latest. Motoya Nakamura / Multnomah County

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) will lift Oregon’s indoor mask requirement no later than March 31, the agency announced Monday. The OHA expects hospitalizations will be low enough by the end of March that eliminating the mask requirement will not overwhelm the state’s hospital system.

“This announcement today is a testament to your collective efforts to stem the tide of the virus throughout the course of this pandemic,” state epidemiologist Dean Sidelinger said in a media statement. “Thank you.”

Oregon has been operating under a temporary indoor mask rule since September. While indoor masking in Oregon has been required on and off since the early days of the pandemic, most of the indoor masking requirements were created under executive orders by Governor Kate Brown. It wasn’t until last summer’s Delta-fueled surge of COVID-19 cases that OHA created a temporary indoor mask rule.

The temporary mask rule was restricted to 180 days, expiring on February 8. Because Oregon law prohibits state agencies from renewing temporary rules, OHA started to develop a permanent indoor mask rule in December with the promise that the health agency would repeal the rule when hospitals are not strained by COVID cases. Oregon hospitals have been operating at or over-capacity for months due to the highly contagious omicron variant that has created record-high COVID cases in the state.

COVID hospitalizations are still peaking in Oregon, but the number of new COVID cases have started to decline. In the past seven days, new COVID cases have dropped by 40 percent across the state, signaling that the region may be through the worst part of the surge.

According to OHA, the number of COVID hospitalizations in Oregon is expected to drop below 400 people by the end of March—similar to the number of hospitalizations late last fall before the omicron surge. Oregon is currently averaging over 1,000 hospitalizations per day and still relying on over 1,200 National Guard members and 1,000 medical support staff from other states to help treat patients and maintain daily hospital operations.

Establishing a timeline for when to end indoor masking acknowledges the concerns of over one hundred Oregonians who rallied against the continuation of an indoor mask requirement during the OHA’s public comment period while creating the new rule. A vast majority of the people who testified were against the state’s mask mandate, claiming that the requirement infringed on their personal freedoms or urging the state to delegate decisions on mask rules to county health departments. Many public comments also pointed out that Oregon is one of ten states in the US that still has an indoor mask requirement and questioned why the safety precaution was still in place since Oregon has comparatively lower case and death rates than states without the mask requirement. Health officials note that Oregon has the third lowest cumulative case rate and seventh lowest death rate in the nation because the state has continued to require masks indoors.

“The evidence from Oregon and around the country is clear: Masks save lives by slowing the spread of COVID-19,” Sidelinger said. “The faithfulness Oregonians have shown by wearing masks, getting vaccinated, and following the other public health protocols over the course of the pandemic has saved lives here in Oregon.”

After March 31, the OHA will still strongly encourage people to wear masks indoors, especially those who are unvaccinated, elderly, immunocompromised, at higher risk of contracting COVID, or anyone else who lives with someone who is in those categories.