On Wednesday, August 18, Gov. Jay Inslee announced new steps to try to stem the rise of COVID cases and hospitalizations in the state. One of those measures was to expand Washington’s indoor mask mandate to include those who are fully vaccinated in public settings such as restaurants and grocery stores, beginning Monday, August 23. Currently, only the unvaccinated were required to wear masks inside those places. The new order is legally binding, unlike recent local county directives, and state businesses need to comply or potentially face penalties.
“We have seen — and this is great news — over the past year how widespread masking can reduce the growth of this pandemic. We loosened the masking requirements at a time when our vaccination rate was growing quite rapidly and when our case counts were dropping quite rapidly,” Inslee said in Wednesday’s press conference. “But unfortunately now both our case counts and our hospitalizations are exploding.”
Bringing back the more comprehensive statewide mandate may not come as much of a surprise, given the concern officials have expressed over the spread of the highly contagious delta variant. As of the latest metrics, the rolling seven-day average for COVID cases in Washington has hovered over 2,000 per day, whereas the average was in the 300s in late June, right before most restrictions were lifted across the state. Hospitalizations are increasing alarmingly as well, although the level of rise varies widely by county.
Inslee continued to emphasize that vaccines remain the best tool to fight the spread of COVID. And the department of health’s August 11 report showed 95 percent of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations from February 1 through the end of July statewide were among those who are not fully vaccinated. To that end, in addition to the mask mandate, the governor announced Wednesday that private and public school workers — including teachers, coaches, bus drivers, and volunteers — would need to get fully vaccinated by October 18 or risk losing their jobs.
As for how Inslee’s decision impacts restaurants in Seattle, mainly it means that the burden of enacting a mask policy no longer falls on each individual business. Thus far, King County health director Dr. Jeffrey Duchin has repeated his recent recommendation that all residents wear a mask inside, yet hadn’t gone as far as putting a directive back in place, leaving it up to each bar and restaurant to institute its own policy.
The state’s guidelines will supersede such a recommendation, and diners across the city must again wear masks inside when not eating or drinking, regardless of vaccination status. Given that many restaurants have already gotten the routine down, and over 130 are taking things a step further by requiring proof of vaccination for entry, hopefully the transition will be an easy one.