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King County’s New Directive Urges Everyone to Continue Wearing Masks at Restaurants

The directive will be in effect until at least 70 percent of county residents are fully vaccinated and aims to clear up recent confusion over masks

A masked female restaurant worker hangs a sign inside a restaurant window that says “Open, Welcome.”
King County wants all restaurant customers to continue wearing masks indoors, whether fully vaccinated or not.

In the hopes of clearing up confusion about mask wearing, Public Health Seattle & King County issued a new COVID-related directive on Thursday, May 20, that advises all residents to keep their faces covered in indoor settings, including restaurants, whether fully vaccinated or not. The directive states that everyone 5-years of age and older in the county should continue to wear masks within indoor public spaces “unless a state-approved method is used to assure that all people allowed inside have been fully vaccinated.”

The directive will remain in effect until the health department confirms that 70 percent or more of adults aged 16-years of age and older in the county are fully vaccinated. Currently, that number stands at around 57 percent, with nearly 70 percent of adults in King County receiving at least one shot. There was no mention in the directive that tied the expiration date to COVID case counts or hospitalizations.

King County’s announcement comes after a series of tweets this week from health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin that local mask guidance shouldn’t change, despite the Center for Disease Control saying it should be safe for fully vaccinated people to go without masks in certain indoor settings. When Duchin posted his remarks on social media (including his disagreement with the CDC’s guidance), it was unclear if they represented official policy. That created some confusion among local restaurants on whether or not they should follow local recommendations on masks or hew closer to what the CDC has stated. Despite encouraging trends, Duchin said the stricter local guidance is linked to elevated rates of COVID in King County and the fact that large segments of our population are not yet fully vaccinated.

But a directive that asks for voluntary compliance isn’t quite the same as a legally-binding requirement, as this FAQ makes clear. The difference with the latter is that financial and other penalties would likely come with businesses that don’t comply (or are repeated violators). Since the beginning of the pandemic, the King County health department has issued fines to several establishments for failure to follow COVID protocols and even shut down a few places temporarily, most recently Flowers Bar and Restaurant in the U District.

It appears that, for the most part, Seattle restaurants and bars are playing it safe and retaining mask policies, regardless of vaccination status. “We are still asking people to wear masks when entering all of our restaurants,” says Kamala Saxton, co-owner of Hawaiian-Korean fast casual chain Marination. “The truth is that we still have some staff who are between the first and second shot, are still in the two week post second dose phase or live with people who are in either one of those phases.”

Several others are following what the CDC says, such as high-end Japanese restaurant Sushi Kashiba (managing director Ed Kashiba told Eater Seattle, “If our guests have been fully vaccinated, masking is optional both indoors and for outdoor courtyard seating”).

Whether or not there are legal repercussions, it would seem advisable for most restaurants to keep existing mask policies in place until there’s more precise guidance on verifying vaccination status. Gov. Jay Inslee stated that Washington would adopt CDC policies regarding masks, but the state’s health department allows individual counties the power to issue stricter guidance.