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Nikeisah Newton stands behind a wooden counter with two plates of food. She’s wearing a Meals 4 Heels shirt.
Nikeisah Newton, the owner of Meals 4 Heels in Portland.
Celeste Noche/EPDX

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By Midnight, Oregon’s Mask Mandate Will Disappear. Restaurant Owners Feel Conflicted About That.

While some restaurant owners are excited to lift their mask requirements in the dining room, others are nervous about yet another spike in cases

Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.

On March 11 at 11:59 p.m., Oregon will lift its indoor mask mandate once again, making it one of the last states in the country to do so. Oregon first lifted its indoor mask mandate in June 2021, followed by a spike in cases; in response, Gov. Kate Brown re-instated the mask mandate in August, right as the delta variant was beginning to gain ground in Oregon.

When the mask mandate was first lifted last summer, the state allowed private businesses to set their own masking requirements; many restaurants decided to continue to require masks. Those that did, however, reported higher numbers of customer attacks, from diners who felt entitled to enter the business maskless. The week after the state first lifted the mask mandate, St. Beatrix employee Brit Abuya noticed customers immediately started challenging the bakery’s mask requirement. “When the mask mandate was lifted, that entire week everyone sort of pushed back, questioning, as if the pandemic was over,” they said in an August interview. “We even had masks to give people, and we had people decline a mask. I’m not trying to be an asshole; I just want to protect myself and the people who are coming here.”

Tomorrow, businesses will be able to set their own mask requirements, but after two full years of the COVID-19 pandemic, many business owners in Portland are excited to lift their mask requirements, relying on other safety measures like proof of vaccination checks and heightened sanitation efforts. Garrett Benedict, the owner of Slabtown restaurant G-Love, will allow diners to enter the restaurant maskless on Saturday, as well as his staff. “Any staff that wants to continue wearing them will be able to do so, of course, but I think we are all pretty excited to get rid of them,” Benedict says. “We are looking forward to moving forward.”

Similarly, Kalvin Myint — who owns several Portland-area Burmese restaurants, including Top Burmese — will let diners enter the restaurant maskless; however, it’s the only safety precaution that will wane at Myint’s restaurants. Top Burmese, Bistro Royale, Burma Joy, and Ambassador will still sanitize tables, chairs, menus, and doors frequently throughout the day, and the restaurants will still use social distancing tools like robot servers and call buttons.

“We are happy to see a glimpse of this pandemic becoming endemic and coming to an end,” Myint says. “Until then, our goal is to strike a balance between adequate safety for all and optimal dining experience.”

Oma’s Hideaway bartender Emily Warden wears a mask while pouring a shot in a shaker in Portland, Oregon. Molly J. Smith / EPDX

Over the course of the pandemic, Naomi Pomeroy transformed her intimate tasting menu restaurant, Beast, into a gourmet market and cafe known as Ripe Cooperative. These days, diners sit on a makeshift patio and at bistro tables indoors for Dungeness crab rolls and bucatini carbonara. While Ripe will continue to check vaccination cards for indoor dining, the restaurant is welcoming unmasked customers for shopping or dining in the space come March 12. That being said, Pomeroy hopes that people who feel even a touch unwell — customers or staff — wear a mask. “It’s something that other countries have done for years out of respect for others,” she says. “I think it’s a great thing to adopt generally.”

Many restaurants are planning on following the state’s guidance, no longer requiring masks in the space, but will continue to check vaccination cards at the door. SE Clinton restaurant Jacqueline will be mask-optional starting March 14th with proof of vaccination, and East Burnside Indonesian restaurant, Wajan, will reopen its indoor dining room to customers who provide proof of vaccination.

However, there are still restaurant owners who feel very concerned with the removal of the mask mandate, and are keeping their policies intact: Mariah and Thomas Pisha-Duffly, the owners of Oma’s Hideaway and Gado Gado, will require masks in both restaurants. Shardell Dues, the owner of Fremont pizzeria Red Sauce Pizza, will not reopen the dining room after the mask mandate dissipates, and is still requiring them for customers who want to enter to use the restroom.

Similarly, Nikeisah Newton, of the eclectic Southeast Portland bowl stand Meals 4 Heels, will continue to mask and ask customers to wear them when ordering. Newton is expecting another spike as mask requirements disappear, especially considering the spread of the sub-variant BA.2. “Another wave of a mass transmittable variant, plus no mask mandate, will only drive up the infection rate and the death rate for those who aren’t vaccinated or boosted,” Newton says. “The one basic line of defense is being taken away. Sometimes we have to do what's good for the group and not the individual, especially in this case.”

Masks will still be required on public transportation and in health care settings.

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