PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon and Washington on Wednesday lifted most of their COVID-19 restrictions to become two of the last states to broadly ease virus orders put in place in the very first days of the pandemic.
New Mexico is set to reopen Thursday, marking a return to business throughout the mainland U.S. following 16 months of disruption and more than 600,000 lives lost. The last holdout — Hawaii — has loosened some rules but is slated to maintain others until 70% of its population is fully vaccinated.
The reopenings come as concern grows about a new coronavirus variant that threatens to set the country back in the months ahead. In California, health officials in Los Angeles County this week strongly recommended that people wear masks indoors in public places — regardless of their vaccination status — to prevent the spread of the highly transmissible delta variant.
In Oregon, Gov. Kate Brown called the day a “truly a historic moment for our state” but said there is still work to be done.
“We will be relentless in our efforts to finish the job, closing our equity gaps and reaching every Oregonian with information and vaccine,” she said at her first in-person news conference in months.
Businesses also applauded the changes but noted challenges remain.
“We lost almost our entire workforce over the course of the year,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. "We’re still short 80,000 workers.”
The United States' first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported north of Seattle in Snohomish County in January 2020. Washington state also saw the nation’s first deadly outbreak, at a nursing home east of Seattle.
Oregon had its first reported COVID-19 case a month later. Hector Calderon, a janitor in a Portland metro-area school district spent 71 days in the hospital, 60 of them on a ventilator, and was in a coma for 50 days.
“God gave me another opportunity to live, and the doctor's did,” Calderon said at the governor's reopening event in Portland. He added he is ready to finally go on a vacation again as restrictions are lifted.
For more than a year, Oregon has had some of the nation’s strictest coronavirus-related safety measures — mask requirements inside and outside, limited gatherings and weekslong forced closures of indoor dining, gyms and theaters. Even major school districts didn’t reopen to in-person learning until April.
“We took unprecedented action to accomplish an unprecedented mission — to do everything we could to protect Oregonians and save lives," Brown said.
The state also has had some of the nation's lowest infection and mortality rates. Health officials estimate the restrictions and stay-at-home orders saved 4,000 lives.
On Wednesday, Brown ended rules including mask mandates — in most settings — capacity limits, physical distancing and the assignment of county risk levels that dictated restrictions.
The exceptions are for federal rules; masks will still be required at airports, on public transportation and in healthcare settings. In addition, businesses can still require customers to wear masks or provide proof of vaccination to forgo wearing them.
The reopening was already noticeable in Portland, where overnight, city workers removed plywood boards that have covered the windows of downtown businesses since the start of the pandemic. Signs plastered on restaurant doors telling people to wear a mask had disappeared.
In Washington state, restaurants, bars, gyms and stores were also allowed to resume full indoor capacity, up from the most recent limit of 50%, 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 all attendees are vaccinated. Those restrictions will be reevaluated July 31.
Masking rules also will remain in some places, including health care settings, public transit and schools. They will continue to be required for unvaccinated employees who return to work indoors. And businesses can continue to choose to require masks for their customers, regardless of vaccination status.
New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham is on the road this week, visiting businesses and talking with residents, but no special events were planned for the state’s long-awaited reopening on Thursday, her office said.
Republican lawmakers, business owners and parents have criticized the Democratic governor for waiting to ease the remaining public health restrictions. They have complained that countless businesses have been forced to close for good and that children lost a year of learning by being forced into virtual classrooms. The dissent fueled a protest in early June in Albuquerque that derailed a rally at which Lujan Grisham announced her bid for reelection.
Republican state Sen. Cliff Pirtle of Roswell said Wednesday the governor’s decision to pin the reopening to 60% of residents being fully vaccinated was arbitrary and did irreparable harm to New Mexico’s education system and economy.
“I think the governor has been throwing darts at the wall the entire time,” Pirtle said, adding that Lujan Grisham's administration never took into account the tens of thousands of residents who gained immunity after recovering from a COVID-19 infection.
Lujan Grisham’s office has said her decisions have been based on what she believes to be in the best interest of New Mexicans and on data and input from public health experts.
Meanwhile, officials in the state's most populated areas said they’re eager to reopen.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller, a Democrat, said Wednesday that while some mask restrictions will remain in place for public transportation systems and other spots, the state’s largest city has the “gas pedal down.”
In Hawaii, testing and quarantine requirements for fully vaccinated domestic travelers will be lifted July 8. Restaurants will also be able to seat up to 75% of their capacity then, although distancing rules between tables will remain.
Gov. David Ige has said he is hopeful public health outcomes will allow the state to lift more restrictions in August. As of Wednesday, about 58% of Hawaii's population was fully vaccinated.
"We can get there if people become informed about their safe and effective vaccination options and choose to get their injections,” Ige said in a release this month.
Also Wednesday, Montana became the latest state to lift its emergency declaration for the pandemic. Gov. Greg Gianforte said he wanted to send a message that the state is open for business.
Associated Press writers Susan Montoya Bryan contributed from Albuquerque, New Mexico and Rachel La Corte reported from Olympia, Washington. Cline is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.