The Thursday tip-off of the NBA playoff game between the Portland Trail Blazers and Denver Nuggets will be the first big test for Oregon's newly approved vaccinated sections at arenas, theaters and other businesses.
“We are thrilled to partner with the governor and Oregon Health Authority as the first indoor sports venue in Oregon with vaccinated sections,” Portland Trail Blazers President Chris McGowan said Monday. “Rip City has shown us such tremendous support throughout the season."
Gov. Kate Brown announced the policy early Monday, saying fans going to the Trail Blazers games at the Moda Center would be among the first to try out the new plan.
“When fans left the Moda Center last March, it was one of the first signs this pandemic was about to change our lives in ways we hadn’t previously imagined,” Brown said. “Vaccines are the key to our return to normal life.”
Venues, businesses and "faith institutions" can still opt to remain with their current, more restrictive health and safety measures, according to Brown spokesman Charles Boyle. But after verifying vaccination, those who are in the new special sections are not subject to mask, physical distancing or capacity limits that are still in place for other sections.
Multnomah County, home to the Moda Center, recently hit Brown's target of a 65% vaccination rate among residents. The mark triggers a drop to the looser rules of the state's lower risk tier for COVID-19 infection.
The county's status allows venues to offer the new vaccination sections. Users of the vaccinated sections must have received both of the two-shot Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, or the one-shot Johnson & Johnson vaccine. Two weeks must have passed since the last shot, the minimum time health officials believe is needed for full protection from the vaccine.
Unlike other parts of the country, Oregon requires proof of vaccination.
People in vaccinated sections will be required to show a CDC-issued vaccination card, or a digital or printed copy. Non-vaccinated children up to age 15 can sit in vaccinated sections with their parent or guardian.
Oregon officials hope televised shots of fans in what recalls the old pre-pandemic playoff pandemonium will boost flagging inoculation rates.
Though the new policy will make a high-profile public debut in the NBA playoffs, the same rules can be followed to experience movies, theater, restaurants and other indoor activities in any county that meets the vaccination mark.
While those sitting in vaccination sections must be fully vaccinated, the plan is available in any county that has reached the state's target of having 65% of residents receiving at least one vaccine shot.
Deschutes, Washington, Lincoln, Hood River and Benton counties have reached the threshold, which allowed them to move into the lower risk level for COVID-19 infection despite having case rates that were higher than the maximum requirements for the least restrictive measures.
Multnomah joins the group after it submits the mandatory vaccine equity plan to reach underserved residents required of each county. Brown said the plan was imminent and the NBA said the Thursday game would offer the vaccination sections.
Boyle said OHA guidance on the new vaccinated sections spells out the definitions and requirements for individuals, groups and organizations. It covers those engaged in "commercial, industrial, or professional activities." Sectors include eating and drinking establishments, recreation and fitness centers, indoor entertainment, retail stores, shopping centers and malls and personal services providers.
Those in vaccinated sections do not have to be counted in overall capacity limits.
"A theater would need to create a section for vaccinated individuals," Boyle said. "Individuals seated in the vaccinated area would not count toward the overall capacity limit. Individuals seated in an unvaccinated section would need to follow mask and physical distancing requirements and would count toward the overall capacity limit."
Other larger counties could soon join the lower risk group. Clackamas, Tillamook, Polk and Lane counties have passed the 60% mark on vaccination.
Curry, Gilliam, Harney, Lake, Morrow, Sherman, Union, Wallowa and Wasco counties are all rated as lower risk based on their actual infection rates.
State officials said Monday that Jackson, Marion, Douglas and Umatilla counties all needed to vaccinate more than 20,000 residents each to meet the 65% vaccination mark.
Besides the county-by-county method, Brown has said that the entire state — all 36 counties — will move into the lower risk category if 70% of residents age 16 and older have received one shot. As of Monday, 64% of those eligible under the guidelines had received at least one shot.
Large crowds sitting together without masks have attended sports events in other states that don't follow the COVID-19 restrictions required in Oregon. Political leaders have debated health agency warnings that such situations could turn into COVID-19 "superspreader" events.
Oregon is not alone in creating special seating for vaccinated people at sporting, cultural and other events. Gov. Jay Inslee of Washington has announced that similar opportunities for those vaccinated against COVID-19 will be offered in the state.
But Inslee and other political leaders across the nation have relied on an "honor system" in which those who say they are vaccinated do not have to produce proof. Oregon requires businesses to ask for proof of vaccination in order for customers to go maskless.
Some political leaders, mostly Republicans, have gone the other direction and sought to bar government or businesses from inquiring about vaccination status or requiring proof, which conservative groups have branded as "vaccination passports." It's the latest political fight over COVID-19 policy pitting public health against privacy and personal choice that has included opposition to wearing masks and social distancing. Decisions to open public schools to in-person instruction and to require civic buildings be open to the public without any vaccination requirements have also split communities around the nation.
Oregon Republicans who have criticized Brown's emergency orders that have given her wide latitude over public life in the name of preserving public health. The new policy has some in the GOP advocating for the honor system put in place by Inslee, a Democrat.
"Does Governor Brown believe that Washingtonians are more trust worthy than Oregonians?" Rep. Daniel Bonham, R-The Dalles, said in a statement Monday. "If not, why such a dramatically different standard and approach?"
Brown has pointed to Oregon's place near the bottom of the list of state infection rates and deaths as proof that the states' risk-and-rules based system has served residents well. Oregon has reported 198,972 positive COVID-19 cases and 2,624 deaths since the first reported cases of the pandemic reached Oregon in February 2020. Nationwide, there have been more than 33.14 million cases and 590,262 deaths, according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.