PORTLAND, Oregon. >> Oregon and Washington lifted most of their COVID-19 restrictions on Wednesday to become two of the last states to largely relax virus orders placed in the early days of the pandemic.
Reopening today, New Mexico marks a return to business across mainland America after a 16 month hiatus and more than 600,000 lives lost. The latest holdout – Hawaii – relaxed some rules but is said to keep others until 70% of its population is fully vaccinated.
The reopenings come as concerns grow over a new variant of coronavirus that could set the country back in the coming months. In California, Los Angeles County health officials this week strongly recommended that people in public places indoors – regardless of their vaccination status – wear masks to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible Delta variant.
In Oregon, Governor Kate Brown called the day “a truly historic moment for our state,” but said there was still much to be done.
“We will work tirelessly to finish the job, close our equity gaps, and reach every Oregonian with information and vaccines,” she said at her first personal press conference in months.
Businesses also welcomed the changes, but the challenges identified remain.
“We lost almost all of our workforce during the year,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. “We are still short of 80,000 workers.”
The first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the United States was reported north of Seattle in Snohomish County in January 2020. Washington state also witnessed the nation’s first fatal outbreak in a nursing home east of Seattle.
Oregon had its first reported COVID-19 case a month later. Hector Calderon, a caretaker in a greater Portland school district, spent 71 days in the hospital, including 60 on a ventilator, and 50 days in a coma.
“God gave me one more chance to live, and the doctor did it,” Calderon said at the governor’s reopening ceremony in Portland. He added that he was ready to finally go on vacation again as restrictions are lifted.
For more than a year, Oregon has had some of the toughest coronavirus-related security measures in the country – mask requirements inside and outside, limited gatherings, and week-long forced closings of indoor restaurants, gyms, and theaters. Even large school districts did not reopen for personal learning until April.
The state also has some of the lowest infection and death rates in the country. Health officials estimate the restrictions and stay-at-home orders saved 4,000 lives.
On Wednesday, Brown put an end to rules, including masking requirements – in most environments – capacity limits, physical distancing and assigning county risk levels that dictated restrictions.
The exceptions apply to federal regulations; Masks are still required at airports, on public transport and in the healthcare sector. In addition, companies can still require customers to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination to refrain from wearing them.
Washington state has also allowed restaurants, bars, gyms, and shops to resume full indoor capacity from the previous 50% limit, and physical distancing requirements have been lifted.
One restriction that remains is a 75% attendance cap for indoor events with more than 10,000 people, unless the event verifies that all attendees are vaccinated. These restrictions will be re-evaluated on July 31st.
Masking rules will also remain in some locations, including healthcare facilities, public transportation, and schools.
New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham is out and about this week visiting businesses and speaking to local residents, but no special events have been scheduled for the long-awaited reopening of the state, her office said.
Republican lawmakers, business owners and parents have criticized the Democratic governor for waiting to ease remaining public health restrictions. They complained that countless stores had to close for good and that children lost a year of learning by being forced into virtual classrooms.
Lujan Grisham’s office said their decisions were based on what they believed was in the best interests of New Mexicans, as well as data and input from public health experts.
In Hawaii, testing and quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated domestic travelers will be lifted on July 8th. Restaurants can then use up to 75% of their capacity, although the distance rules between the tables are retained.
Governor David Ige said he hoped the public health results will allow the state to lift further restrictions in August. By Wednesday, approximately 58% of the Hawaiian population was fully vaccinated.
“We can get there if people are informed about their safe and effective vaccination options and decide to have their injections,” Ige said in a press release this month.
Also on Wednesday, Montana was the last state to lift its declaration of emergency for the pandemic. Governor Greg Gianforte said he wanted to send a message that the state is open for business.
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