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King County Issues Stricter Mask Guidance Than the CDC, Causing Confusion for Restaurants

Health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin wants people to continue wearing masks inside, even if fully vaccinated, despite new guidance from the Center for Disease Control

A surgical mask sits to the right of a table setting and a salt shaker.
Strict mask policies in King County remain in place, despite new CDC guidelines.

On a chilly, rainy Monday evening at seafood destination Westward in Northlake, diners sit at tables inside with doors fully open for ventilation, and outdoors on a heated and covered patio. The waitstaff answers questions about the menu, takes orders, and politely asks guests to keep masks on when interacting with servers. In other words, not much has changed at this restaurant since the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued new guidance saying that fully vaccinated people do not have to wear masks in most indoor settings, including restaurants.

Jeremy Price, an owner of the Sea Creatures group that owns Westward, says that the team is following the lead of King County, rather than the CDC, when it comes to masking policy. And the recommendations from King County Health Officer Jeffrey Duchin this week appear to be contradictory to the federal guidance. “I strongly encourage all KC residents (not just unvaccinated people) to continue wearing face masks when in indoor public spaces,” Duchin tweeted recently, while pointing to a New York Times article that opined it was “unwise for the CDC to lift the mask mandate so early.”

But it’s unclear whether Duchin’s recommendation represents an official mandate that will continue to be enforced by financial penalties for non-compliance. As it stands now, there has been no change in the county’s requirement on masking: Face coverings are still required in all public indoor spaces, and outdoors when you cannot remain 6 feet apart — vaccinated or not. And the county points to recent clarifications from the CDC that mask mandates should be linked to local COVID-19 and vaccination coverage rates. At the moment, COVID cases in King County have been slowly declining, but still elevated at more than 200 cases per 100,000 people. Vaccination rates are encouraging: Almost 70 percent of residents have received at least one dose, and 56 percent are fully vaccinated.

When pressed to explain how local businesses should interpret and implement Duchin’s recommendation, Public Health – Seattle & King County tells Eater Seattle it’s “considering whether ending the indoor mask mandate is the best option in King County at this time and if additional guidance or clarification is needed.”

At the state level, Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference May 13 that Washington would adopt CDC guidance on allowing unvaccinated people to go maskless in certain indoor settings, essentially ending the statewide mask mandate. However, businesses in Washington still retain the right to institute their own policies and local authorities are also empowered to do what they feel is best.

Thus, as was the case early in the pandemic, restaurants seem to be on their own once again when it comes to policing public health — and uncertainty remains.

Like the Sea Creatures group, several local restaurants, from high-end John Howie Steak to Beacon Hill’s Musang to the Georgetown bakery Deep Sea Sugar and Salt are playing things safe, requesting that customers keep their masks on while dining inside or interacting with staff. “It is very confusing and overwhelming,” says Preeti Agarwal, chef and owner of Fremont’s Meesha, noting that she’s among those keeping a mask policy in place. “I think whatever we do will be gradual. To change overnight would probably be wrong.”

Wes Yoo, owner of Ballard Korean restaurant the Gerald says that several of his staff members haven’t been fully vaccinated yet, and he wants to make sure that protections remain by requiring guests to wear masks inside, even if they’ve received shots. “I’d rather err on the cautious side, and have a universal rule for everyone,” he says, reflecting the logistical complications of confirming whether or not a guest is fully vaccinated. “Invites too many opportunities for riff raff.”

But others may try to loosen things up a bit, taking cues from higher authorities than the King County health department. “The messaging has been a bit vague, but we will follow the guidance of the CDC,” says Ed Kashiba, manager of acclaimed Pike Place Japanese restaurant Sushi Kashiba. “Staff will continue to wear masks, but if our guests have been fully vaccinated, masking is optional both indoors and for outdoor courtyard seating. Our guests have been so gracious and understanding throughout this past year, we will continue to trust that they are acting in good faith.” While allowing unmasked guests would appear to go against current King County guidelines, it’s unclear how much of legal risk restaurants such as Sushi Kashiba put themselves in relaxing mask policies, even if they align those with the CDC.

For local businesses, trying to track what’s allowed and what’s not when it comes to masks is all too familiar. Very early in the pandemic, the CDC seemed to hedge on whether universal mask wearing was needed across the board, before developing firmer guidelines. Meanwhile, Inslee didn’t institute an official state mask mandate until June 2020, weeks after Washington’s first stay-at-home order expired. King County’s official policy on masking and other COVID-related measures tended to align with the state, up until now.

With vaccinations up and COVID cases declining, conditions this time around are a little different, and hopefully the confusion is only temporary. Inslee has indicated that he intends to lift most COVID restrictions, including capacity limits on indoor dining, by June 30. And even if King County keeps its indoor mask mandate in place for the time being, Duchin has signaled that it won’t be for an extended period beyond that late June target for reopening the economy.

In the meantime, restaurants in Seattle are still left to interpret vague statements from local health officials, while keeping an eye on press conferences for any new announcements. Change continues to be in the air.