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Gov. Kate Brown Says Restaurant Workers Are Expected to Enforce Oregon’s Mask-Wearing Mandate

Oregonians are required to wear masks when visiting indoor public spaces. That means most restaurant owners will be handling those de-escalations themselves

The doors of the Sisters cafe in the Pearl District barely remain open, with a long wooden table jutting out on either side of the doors. A man wearing a blue mask and gloves speaks to a customer on either end of the long wooden table.
An employee of Sisters Coffee Company in the Pearl District serves a customer while wearing a mask
Molly J. Smith/EPDX
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

Across the state, Oregonians are now required to wear masks within indoor public spaces like restaurants, shops, bars, and grocery stores. The mandate is an extension of a directive instituted in June within seven Oregon counties, including Clackamas, Washington, and Multnomah. The question, however, has always been how these orders will be enforced; based on Gov. Kate Brown’s press conference today, it seems like the main enforcers will be the employees and owners of businesses.

Although not wearing a face covering in these spaces will be subject to a misdemeanor, in Wednesday’s press conference, Gov. Kate Brown explained that enforcement of these requirements shouldn’t be the responsibility of police at this point, encouraging businesses to “de-escalate” conflicts with customers who do not want to wear a mask indoors. “As with all of my orders, I do not want local police issuing tickets,” Brown said. “Instead, I’m calling upon our businesses to step up and help ensure that the public and their employees are protected.” When asked later for more details, Brown said, “Our law enforcement have a number of things to do, ensuring people are safe is one of them. We’re not asking businesses to call the police… if they need assistance or advice they should call Oregon OSHA.”

For those who don’t know, OSHA — the Occupational Safety and Health Administration — helps enforce workplace health and safety. Employees can file written complaints or call an Oregon field office for help with enforcement; people have filed complaints with the OSHA regarding violations of COVID-19-based safety requirements, for instance.

Generally, when it comes to mask enforcement, Oregon OSHA has a few sets of guidelines to help prevent potential escalation with customers: The organization suggests an employee serve as a greeter to make sure customers are wearing masks and employers provide inexpensive masks at the front of the store for those who forget them. But generally, Oregon OSHA spokesperson Aaron Corvin says employers have an obligation to enforce these sorts of rules, not only because of the mandate, but because of the health risk to their employees. “Customers who come into a store without a mask are potential sources of infection... If someone is walking on premises and they’re not wearing a face covering, we’re not going to chase them down, but if something is persistently creating danger for worker safety and health, simply posting a sign on your business isn’t enough,” Corvin says. “Ultimately, it’s the job of employers to protect the health and safety of their workers.” If businesses fail to do so, they could be hit with an OSHA citation or inspection, which could lead to a penalty and fine. OSHA does provide some resources for employers, including free virtual consultations on health and safety requirements and how to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The requirement to wear masks comes with some high stakes, beyond the health risks of COVID-19: Brown’s office has made it very clear that if the rapid spread of COVID-19 doesn’t slow soon, she may have to institute more drastic measures to slow the spread of the virus, which may include shutting down businesses once again. “Your actions will determine whether our businesses across the state can stay open,” she said, noting the closures of businesses in states like Texas and Florida. As the state enters a holiday weekend, where many are planning private Fourth of July celebrations, the potential for spread is higher than it might be otherwise.

Various studies and guidance from health officials have suggested that mask-wearing can reduce transmission of COVID-19 by hindering the spread of respiratory droplets. More and more experts have suggested that governments require mask-wearing in public spaces; the use of masks and face coverings in public spaces are now required in 20 states nationwide. In states that adopted these sorts of rules, restaurant workers have become the enforcers of mask wearing, which puts them in extraordinarily difficult positions; in a story for Eater Detroit, employees of restaurants described customers yelling and screaming after being told to put on masks, threatening employees. A man in Indiana physically assaulted a 7 Eleven worker after being told to wear a mask, and a man shot a server at a Colorado Waffle House after being told to wear a mask.

In Portland so far, restaurant owners have described customers as courteous when being told to wear a mask. Jane Smith, the owner of the Killingsworth wine bar Dame, says that all customers have brought masks to the restaurant, wearing them inside and at tables. Across the river, Deepak Kaul of Indian restaurant Bhuna says people have generally self-enforced mask-wearing. “If people walk up and they aren’t wearing a mask, I can say, ‘Hey, mask!’ and they put them on,” Kaul says. “We’re not in Texas or Arizona; people aren’t throwing tantrums yet.”

However, enforcement may not be an issue for long, in the chef and business owner’s eyes; he isn’t necessarily optimistic that the current mask ban will curb the rise in cases in the state. “I think we’re headed for a shutdown again,” he says. “Next week, I bet there’s going to be some decisions made by the governor about scaling back. Everyone is kind of expecting that.”

Full video of Brown’s July 1 press conference [Official]
‘Oregon Businesses Will Not Be Able to Stay Open’ If COVID-19 Cases Continue to Climb [EPDX]
Oregonians Will Be Required to Wear Masks in Bars and Restaurants Statewide [EPDX]
Why US states suddenly made masks mandatory [Vox]
What U.S. States Require Masks In Public? [Masks4All]
Restaurant Employees Become the Unexpected Enforcers of Mask Policies [ED]
Man assaults Mishawaka 7-11 employee after being told he couldn’t be served without face covering [SBT]
Waffle House shooter was told to wear a mask, Colorado police say [NBC]