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King County Issues Directive to Wear Face Masks at Restaurants, Grocery Stores, and Other Public Settings

The new directive isn’t law — but restaurants can still turn diners away for not complying

Three cloth face masks lying on a table, in green yellow, and blue
Seattle strongly recommends wearing face masks in public settings where social distancing is difficult.

On Monday afternoon, local officials, including Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, detailed a public health directive for King County, strongly encouraging people to wear cloth face coverings in indoor settings where social distancing could prove difficult, such as restaurants for takeout services, grocery stores, and pharmacies. It also includes a directive to wear face masks in some confined outdoor public areas, such as farmers markets. In addition, businesses are required to prominently post guidance for customers on face mask usage to help slow the transmission of COVID-19.

While this directive is not a law, it’s a more forceful pronouncement than Washington’s public health recommendation in April that people were cloth masks in public, and includes some specific guidance relevant to restaurants, besides the aforementioned signage. Mayor Durkan said that Seattle businesses, including restaurants, would be allowed to turn customers away for not wearing masks in their establishments, as long as the practices are not discriminatory and take into account exceptions to the face mask directive. Those exceptions include small children, people with disabilities, and deaf individuals who use facial movements as part of communication. Officials said the directive applies to both customers and staff.

But the question remains on how and where restaurants might be able to acquire such equipment for employees, with PPE in short supply. When asked about this by Eater Seattle, King County executive Dow Constantine said officials didn’t yet “have all the answers” but are currently trying to make sure that there is a reliable source available for restaurants to get PPE, whether that’s through the public, private, or philanthropic sector. “We are in active conversations about whether businesses are going to be able to access the materials they need to keep their employees as safe as possible as they cautiously restart operations,” he said. “We’re very much aware of the supply chain issues.”

Mayor Durkan did say the city will be providing over 45,000 free cloth face coverings to vulnerable communities, including immigrants and refugees, older adults, people experiencing homelessness, and people with disabilities. The city will also distribute masks to food banks, meal providers at Seattle Public Schools, and Meals on Wheels.

In April, the Washington State Department of Health wrote that while face masks might reduce some additional transmission, the best way to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 is through thorough hand-washing, not touching one’s face, and staying at home as much as possible, and local Seattle officials continued to emphasize these practices Monday.

Meanwhile, some supermarkets and large chains, such as Costco, have already instituted their own policies around the use of face masks. And other states and cities across the country, such as New York, have implemented rules requiring employees and customers at essential businesses to wear masks. As to why King County did not make face coverings in public mandatory and enforceable by law, Constantine said, “We cannot succeed if we turn these social distancing and other measures into a cat and mouse game. It needs to be a broad, voluntary compliance within the community.”