Portland, Ore. — Oregon and Washington on Wednesday lifted most of their COVID-19 restrictions to become two of the last states to widely ease virus orders imposed in the first days of the pandemic.
New Mexico is set to reopen on Thursday, a return to business across the mainland US after 16 months of disruption and the loss of more than 600,000 lives. The last holdout – Hawaii – has loosened some rules, but is slated to keep others until 70% of its population is fully vaccinated.
In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown called the day “truly a historic moment for our state” but said there was still work to be done.
“We will be relentless in our efforts to finish the job, close our equity gap, and reach every Oregonian with information and vaccines,” she said at her first in-person news conference in months.
Businesses also appreciated the changes but noted challenges remain.
“We lost almost our entire workforce during the year,” said Anthony Anton, president and chief executive officer of the Washington Hospitality Association. “We’re still at 80,000 employees.”
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported in the United States in January 2020 in Snohomish County, north of Seattle. Washington state also saw the nation’s first fatal outbreak at a nursing home east of Seattle.
A month later, Oregon reported its first COVID-19 case. Hector Calderon, a janitor in the Portland metro-area school district, spent 71 days in the hospital, 60 of them on a ventilator, and 50 days in a coma.
“God gave me one more chance to live, and the doctor did,” Calderone said at the governor’s reopening event in Portland. He said that he is finally ready to go on leave again once the restrictions are lifted.
For more than a year, Oregon has had some of the strictest coronavirus-related safety measures in the country – mask requirements inside and outside, limited gatherings and weeks of indoor dining, closing gyms and theaters. Even major school districts won’t reopen for in-person learning until April.
“We took unprecedented action to fulfill an unprecedented mission – to do everything we can to protect Oregonians and save lives,” Brown said.
The state has also had some of the lowest infection and death rates in the country. Health officials estimate that the restrictions and stay-at-home orders saved 4,000 lives.
On Wednesday, Brown scrapped rules including the mask mandate – in most settings – the assignment of capacity limits, physical distancing and county exposure levels that dictate restrictions.
Exceptions are to federal rules; Masks will still be required at airports, on public transport, and in health care settings. In addition, businesses may still require customers to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination to avoid wearing them.
The reopening was already noticeable in Portland, where, overnight, city workers removed the plywood boards that have covered the windows of downtown businesses since the start of the pandemic. Signs on restaurant doors asking people to wear masks had disappeared.
In Washington state, restaurants, bars, gyms and shops were also allowed to resume full indoor capacity, most recently above the 50% limit, and physical distancing requirements were lifted.
One restriction that will remain in place is a 75% attendance cap on indoor events of more than 10,000 people, unless the event verifies that all attendees have been vaccinated. Those restrictions will be reevaluated on July 31.
Masking rules will also remain in place in some places, including health care settings, public transport and schools. They will continue to be required for non-vaccinated workers returning to work indoors. And businesses can continue to choose to require masks for their customers regardless of vaccination status.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is on the road this week, visiting businesses and talking with residents, but no specific events were planned for the state’s long-awaited reopening Thursday , his office said.
Republican lawmakers, business owners and parents have criticized the Democratic governor for waiting to ease remaining public health restrictions. They have complained that countless businesses have been forced to close for good and that children have lost a year of learning by being forced into virtual classrooms. The disagreement fueled a protest in Albuquerque in early June that derailed a rally at which Lujan Grisham announced his bid for re-election.
Cliff Pertley, the Republican state of Roswell, said Wednesday that the governor’s decision to reopen to fully vaccinate 60% of residents was arbitrary and caused irreparable damage to New Mexico’s education system and economy.
“I think the governor is throwing darts at the wall the whole time,” Pertle said, adding that Lujan Grisham’s administration never took into account the thousands of residents who have recovered after recovering from a COVID-19 infection. gained immunity.
Lujan Grisham’s office has said his decisions are in the best interest of New Mexicans and based on data and input from public health experts.
Meanwhile, officials in the state’s most populous areas said they were eager to reopen.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, said Wednesday that some mask restrictions would remain in place for public transportation systems and other places the state’s largest city is “gas pedal down”.
In Hawaii, testing and quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated domestic travelers will be lifted on July 8. Restaurants will also be able to seat up to 75% of their capacity, although distance rules between tables will remain in place.
Governor David Ige has said he hopes the public health results will allow the state to lift more restrictions in August. As of Wednesday, about 58% of Hawaii’s population had been fully vaccinated.
“We can get there if people are informed about their safe and effective vaccination options and choose to get their injections,” Ige said in a release this month.
Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed from Albuquerque, New Mexico. La Corte reported from Olympia, Washington. Kline is a core member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a non-profit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on secret issues.