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What Washington’s New Mandatory Face Mask Rule Means for Seattle Restaurants

Diners must wear face coverings indoors, except when actively eating and drinking, and wear them outside if they can’t maintain social distancing

A masked customer waits outside San Fermo in Ballard, near a host also wearing a mask
Diners must now wear masks inside restaurants when not eating and drinking.
Suzi Pratt

On Tuesday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new order that makes face masks mandatory across the state of Washington to help mitigate the spread of COVID-19, with a few exceptions. The mandate will go into effect Friday.

According to the new rule, people must wear face coverings in public indoors, as well as outdoors if six feet of social distancing can’t be maintained. Inslee noted during Tuesday’s press conference that one exception to keeping a face mask on would be when actively eating and drinking inside a restaurant. But the masks would need to be worn in most other situations, such as walking around common areas, going to the bathroom, and interacting with staff.

Up until this point, face coverings were strongly suggested by state health officials, but it wasn’t a requirement. King County also had a non-legally binding directive that recommended face masks, and protected businesses who refused services to those who didn’t wear them. But this establishes a stricter set of guidelines, with a defined legal component — it is a misdemeanor not to comply with this order. Right now, there are several other cities and states that have some form of a mask requirement, including California, New York, and Illinois.

The new mandate was prompted by a rise in coronavirus cases in Washington, most alarmingly in Yakima County, where Inslee said the health care system has been stressed to the point that the county has run out of hospital beds for COVID-19 patients. In Tuesday’s announcement, Inslee said the face covering rule would be even stricter, and Yakima businesses would be subject to punishment for serving customers without face masks, including a possible loss of license or hefty fines.

Elsewhere in the state, the consequences (for now) may not be as severe, as the onus appears to be on people to voluntarily comply before there’s some sort of enforcement. There are several exceptions to the order: If there’s a medical reason for not wearing a mask, one is not legally required to do so, and children under the age of five are also not required to wear masks.

Seattle recently entered phase two of Washington’s “Safe Start” reopening plan, which means that dining rooms and outdoor seating are allowed to open at 50 percent capacity. That doesn’t change with this order, but the new mask requirement will put the spotlight on businesses where face coverings have been lax. When dining rooms first opened in the city, diners were lined up close together outside breweries and sitting inside small restaurants, many clearly not wearing masks.

But it seems that — for the most part — diners will be willing to comply with the new order. In a recent Eater Seattle survey, nearly 70 percent of respondents said there should be a mask requirement for restaurant diners, at least when people aren’t actively eating and drinking. Ninety percent said it would be completely fine for a restaurant to refuse service to someone not wearing a mask.

No matter what, this requirement likely won’t be going away any time soon. On Tuesday, Inslee said the face mask mandate could be the new normal until there’s a vaccine for the novel coronavirus.