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Will King County Soon Have to Reinstitute a Mask Mandate?

As COVID cases rise of late, health officials continue to hold off on putting restrictions back in place, but the situation may force their hand

A pile of light blue cloth face coverings sit on a wood counter next to a beige vase
Masks for fully vaccinated people indoors are optional in King County.

Just as in the rest of the U.S., a rise in new COVID cases spurred by the delta variant has been cause for concern. Over the past seven days, Public Health Seattle & King County (PHSKC) reported around 141 new cases daily, which is a 34 percent increase week to week. There’s also been an increasing trend since June 28, when PHSKC was reporting 55 new cases daily. That uptick began a day before the county officially lifted its mask directive that urged people, whether fully vaccinated or not, to wear face coverings indoors.

Might such a mandate be put back into place? Other areas of the country, including L.A. County, Clark County in Nevada, New Orleans, and Austin, Texas, have already reinstated stronger mask requirements or recommendations due to a spike in COVID cases. But, thus far, Washington and King County officials have been reluctant to take that step. “We are using the tool of vaccinations,” Gov, Jay Inslee said in a press conference last week. “That’s the ultimate answer to this pandemic. We don’t want to be wearing masks for the next 32 years — vaccines stop this thing dead.”

When asked whether another mask directive could be coming soon, a spokesperson for PHSKC said, “Public Health is continuously monitoring the evolving outbreak, and we are assessing the need for additional guidance on an ongoing basis.” But some officials have already sounded the call for more urgency. “I think it’s wise for even vaccinated people to consider wearing a mask when they are indoor in a crowded public space, such as a grocery store, hardware store [or] what have you,” said Snohomish County Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters, while U.S. Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy recently said he backs local counties putting in place their own mask mandates again.

Even though the King County directive has expired, it’s not supposed to be a total free-for-all. Washington state’s department of health still requires unvaccinated people to wear face coverings inside when in public and advises everyone (vaccinated or not) to continue masking up in certain indoor settings, such as hospitals, doctor’s offices, and schools with unvaccinated children.

Washington state’s guidance also notes to “respect the room you’re in,” which means that if a business still has a mask mandate in effect, they still have the right to refuse service to those who refuse to comply. Though around 81 percent of King County residents 16 years of age or older have received two doses of the Moderna or Pfizer shot (or one dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine), there’s still a significant portion of the population that remains vulnerable to severe disease. If the delta variant continues to spread rapidly, local policymakers may have to rethink the current strategy.