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Multnomah County issues face mask mandate as COVID cases, hospitalizations surge

Starting Aug. 13, people will be required to wear masks indoors, including in businesses like grocery stores, restaurants and gyms regardless of vaccination status.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Everyone age five and older in Multnomah County will be required to wear face masks inside public spaces like grocery stores, restaurants and gyms regardless of vaccination status starting Friday, Aug. 13.

Multnomah County leaders announced the face mask mandate on Monday afternoon as part of the county’s plan to combat the rise in cases and hospitalizations because of the highly contagious delta variant of COVID-19. 

At this time, the county is not instituting capacity limits for businesses.

RELATED: OHA: 19% of COVID-19 cases in July were vaccine breakthrough cases

"We know that masks work. They are tried and true. They are affordable and they're an effective way to limit the spread of this virus and its variants," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "Until enough of us are vaccinated all across Multnomah County, masks remain one of the best strategies that we have to keep each other as safe as possible."

Kafoury said the county will enforce the executive order in the same way it enforces tobacco regulations. She said the process will be complaint driven and violators could face up to a $1,000 fine. Additional information on how people can file a complaint online or over the phone will be released later this week.

Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines said the mask mandate will be in place through January 2022, but could be lifted before that date. She said the COVID-19 vaccine "does its job in preventing severe disease and hospitalization" but it will not prevent all infections as the delta variant surges.

"A vaccinated person may still get a mild infection and therefore may still be contagious, which is why we're asking everyone now to wear a mask indoors in order to slow the spread," said Vines.

Dr. Renee Edwards, the chief medical officer at Oregon Health and Science University (OHSU) urged unvaccinated people to limit their activity as much as possible. Edwards also said unvaccinated people are spreading COVID-19 to young kids who are not able to get a shot. 

"Even though kids are not as likely to get severely sick or die, we just don't want them to get the virus because it could still potentially impact their health and we don't know yet about the long-term impacts of having had the delta variant or COVID-19," Edwards said.

Portland Public Schools (PPS) Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero said students and staff will be required to wear masks in all PPS and administrative buildings. Schools will fully reopen on Sept. 1.

Gov. Kate Brown reacted to the mask mandate in a statement. She thanked Multnomah County leaders for taking action to slow the spread of the delta variant and also called on other local leaders to implement mask requirements.

"If local leaders continue not to act and their regional hospitals exceed their capacity, it will impact hospitals all across the state," Gov. Brown said. "We will continue to explore statewide health measures necessary to stop the delta variant from stretching Oregon hospitals beyond their full capacity.”  

The U.S. is now averaging 100,000 new COVID-19 infections per day, up from about 11,000 cases a day in late June, the Associated Press reported over the weekend. Multnomah County has seen its case numbers increase over the same time period. Over the past four weeks, Multnomah County has averaged 546 new cases per week, up from 136 in the last week of June, according to the county's regional COVID-19 data dashboard.

The mask mandate appears to be as polarizing as it was last year. Some are in favor, like Summer Triato, owner of Bar West.

“I welcome it with open arms," said Triato. "I think it was too soon, a lot of us felt that way, it was too soon to do away with the indoor mask mandate. I'm happy to see we're getting some support on the county level, I'd like to see more of it.”

But there are plenty of dissenters on social media saying they won't be coming to Multnomah County, that they will be taking their business out of the county and even one post that reads, “I have no polite words for this. If there weren’t enough reasons for East County to break away from Portland and create a new county this should be it.”

On Monday, the state reported 3,229 new COVID cases reported over a three-day span: Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) said the delta variant now accounts for nearly 100% of new cases. Data from the OHA also shows there are 575 people with COVID-19 hospitalized across the state and another 151 COVID-19 patients are in the intensive care unit. It is the most ICU patients with COVID the state has seen during the entirety of the pandemic.

RELATED: Vaccines remain highly effective despite breakthrough cases, Oregon health officials say

WATCH: COVID vaccine updates | YouTube playlist

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