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No, Oregon's proposed 'permanent' mask rule is not going to remain in place forever

The 'permanent' designation means the rule would have no built-in expiration date, but state health officials could still lift it when it's safe to do so.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon state health officials held a public hearing Thursday morning to consider adopting a permanent indoor face mask rule. But what does "permanent" mean?

A large number of recent social media posts, right-wing outlet headlines and even some mainstream news sites have presented the word "permanent" without context in the headline, implying at first glance that the rule will continue forever.

THE QUESTION

Does Oregon's proposed mask rule being "permanent" mean it would remain in place forever?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is false.

No, "permanent" does not mean the rule would be in place forever. It's legal jargon, not a literal description. It means a rule can remain in place indefinitely, without a prescribed expiration date, but it can still be repealed.

WHAT WE FOUND

The Oregon Health Authority put Oregon's current indoor mask requirement in place in August, when the state was being pummeled by the more-contagious delta variant of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. 

The state's original mask mandate — which was imposed through an executive order by Gov. Kate Brown, not the OHA  — was lifted two months earlier as vaccination drove case numbers downward. The delta variant reversed that trend, and OHA enacted the new indoor mask rule to slow the spread.

RELATED: Latest Oregon COVID numbers: cases, hospitalizations and vaccinations

Oregon's numbers fell in the following three months, but they were still far above pre-delta levels in early December when OHA's Rules Advisory Committee began drafting the permanent rule — and the subsequent arrival of the omicron variant pushed case rates to new record levels, eclipsing the delta wave.

The mandate put in place in August was a temporary rule and is set to expire in early February — just after the projected peak of the omicron wave.

Oregon law gives OHA the power to implement public health rules such as the mask mandate, but the agency is only allowed to leave temporary rules in place for 180 days, according to lead communications officer Jonathan Modie.

RELATED: How you can order 4 free COVID tests from the government

In order to keep a rule in place longer than 180 days, the agency must go through a formal administrative process, including soliciting public input and filing the rule with the Secretary of State's office, to adopt it as a permanent rule.

Despite the name, permanent rules can still be rescinded or cancelled if the OHA determines that they are no longer necessary, according to Modie — and the agency has indicated that it intends to do so in this case.

In a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published in mid-December, the OHA said it was proposing that the Oregon State Public Health Director or Oregon State Health Officer would have the authority to rescind the mask rule based on COVID transmission, hospitalization and death rates.

So "permanent" in this case just means the agency can leave the rule in place until case numbers fall back to a safe level, rather than being forced to end the rule in the middle of a surge.

It is unclear, however, what that safe level might be. The OHA lifted an outdoor mask rule in November but wouldn't commit to any specific metrics or timeline to lift the indoor mandate — and that was before omicron arrived and pushed Oregon's daily case numbers nearly tenfold.