Oregon state senator’s balk at masks at the Capitol seems more political theater

The numbers show Oregon did better than any other state at containing Covid, assessed on a per capita basis

March 3, 2022 5:30 am

State Sen. Dallas Heard sits in the gallery of the Senate chamber during a legislative special session on Monday, Sept. 20, 2021. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

By the latest stats, Oregon is No. 1 or dead last, but in a good way, when it comes to the pandemic.

It ranks last in per-capita cases from Covid, behind all other states and the District of Columbia. (The next lowest is Maryland; Washington is five states down the list.) That could be cause for feeling good about the state’s response to the pandemic. Fewer Oregonians have gotten sick, generally speaking, than residents of most other states.

The reasons for this may be varied and up for debate, but the state’s restrictions on distancing and shielding probably had something to do with it.

And the positive statistic has to be put in context with this one: 692,261 Oregonians have been reported as falling ill with some variant of Covid, a huge number of people. And 6,582 have been reported as dying from it.

Those numbers are worth reconsidering now because of the headlines recently in two areas: Diminishing numbers of cases, and the wait until March 12 when many of the current pandemic restrictions are eased back by the state.

And we’re all looking forward to that.

But the pandemic isn’t gone yet, and the rules are in place for a reason.

On Thursday, Feb. 24, Oregon reported 981 new Covid cases and four deaths.

Which makes the pandemic-inspired incident in the state Senate that same day all the more worth noting.

State Sen. Dallas Heard, a Republican (state party chair as well) from Myrtle Creek, has been a mask opponent for months. The Senate, like the House and many other government entities, has imposed a rule that because of the pandemic, officials in attendance must be masked.

Heard has declined to comply, saying masks shouldn’t be required in schools, either.

Mostly, that means Heard has participated in the current session remotely, not in person. Twice in recent months (in December and early in February) he showed up on the Senate floor maskless, and Senate President Peter Courtney asked him to either mask up or leave.

Heard left.

On Feb. 24, the exchange went differently. He didn’t leave.

That led to a Senate vote that he be required to leave if he didn’t mask (as his fellow Republicans were doing). This became a partisan floor vote, with the Democratic votes prevailing to kick Heard out of the Capitol, after which he departed.

While that was going on, a trucker anti-mask protest group was making noise from outside.

Heard remarked afterward, “I was duly elected by my constituents to represent them in this Capitol. What does it say to every Oregonian if the voice of one-thirtieth of this state can be shunned and excluded from its own Capitol?”

Why did Heard try the same stunt a third time, and this time refuse to leave? What, in other words, was different from the first two times?
And this isn’t his first time getting kicked out of public buildings over pandemic distancing. Last fall he was ordered out of Douglas High School in his home district for similar reasons.

But the choice was entirely his. Courtney effectively begged him to stay, if he would please just mask up, as his fellow senators did.

He was not obliged to leave. He personally made the decision to walk away from representing his constituents on the floor.

The maybe not coincidental trucker protest may indicate an organized, coordinated effort to bring the whole subject of masking back to prominence. The timing was suggestive too. This came in the last working days of a session almost as close as possible to primary Election Day in May.

Maybe as well there’s this. Many of the masking and other state pandemic rules Oregon has had are about to go away. Most of them are expected (barring, presumably, another variant outbreak) to end in little more than a week, and most soon after that. The cause for the outrage will be greatly diminished before long. Best to take political advantage of it while it’s still here?
Meantime, the rules are in place, still, for a reason. Oregonians still are getting sick and still are dying. At some point a calculation will be made that the numbers and risk are diminished enough to ease the restrictions.

Many of the rules we live by come out of calculations just like that.

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Randy Stapilus

Randy Stapilus has researched and written about Northwest politics and issues since 1976 for a long list of newspapers and other publications. A former newspaper reporter and editor, and more recently an author and book publisher, he lives in Carlton.