Time to mask up again. On Monday, August 23, Gov. Jay Inslee’s latest COVID-related mandate for face coverings goes into effect, and applies to everyone, whether vaccinated or not, in most public indoor settings such as bars and restaurants. As has been the case previously during the pandemic, the only exception for removing a mask is when one is actively eating or drinking.
Back in May, when the state’s initial mask mandate was lifted, fully vaccinated diners had the option to go maskless at restaurants, despite recommendations from local authorities, including King County health officer Dr. Jeffrey Duchin. Now that’s no longer the case through this latest state mandate, which is legally binding, versus county directives that have relied mainly on volunteer compliance. As for potential consequences for businesses and individuals who ignore the rule, “complaints will be addressed first by providing outreach and education,” says Mike Faulk, deputy communications director for the governor’s office. “Failure to come into compliance following our outreach could result in fines, penalties, and license revocation, depending on the severity of the violations.”
The mandate comes as the delta variant drives COVID cases and hospitalizations up around Washington, coinciding with a lagging vaccination rate in certain areas of the state. Here in King County, the 7-day average of cases and hospitalizations have reached a level approaching previous waves of the pandemic, even though the rate of vaccination is high, with around 77 percent of residents 16 and older fully vaccinated (the vast majority of severe COVID cases continue to be among the unvaccinated).
Even with the newly reinstated mask requirement, it’s unlikely that a lot of bars and restaurants in Seattle will need to make drastic adjustments. Many already had their own mask mandates in place already, and over 130 establishments have gone a step further, requiring proof of vaccination for entry. “We welcome [the new mandate] given the fast spreading delta variant,” says Wassef Haroun, owner of the Mama Restaurant Group, which includes Mamnoon and MBar. “In fact, it’s been our policy for two weeks now as we realized that transmission is occurring between vaccinated folk and there is no foolproof way to block that, even vía the most strict guest vaccine mandates. We would rather not have it, but we are safer and saner with it.”
But some operators wondered what took so long for the governor to act, given that concerns over the highly contagious delta variant had been building since early July. “It is frustrating that state and local governments waited this long to show up, leaving many small businesses to navigate all of this on their own,” says Jeremy Price, co-owner of the Sea Creatures Restaurant Group, which includes acclaimed Capitol Hill steakhouse Bateau and the recently reopened Willmott’s Ghost at the Amazon Spheres. “This is a really, really huge crisis, one that requires government level intervention to address. Individual businesses, not generally operated by health experts and scientists, all doing different things at different times will only prolong this pandemic.”
Price adds that most guests understand the necessity of such requirements, with some occasional pushback. But, at this point, any debate over putting in place such safety measures isn’t a “conversation we have time for,” he says. “If guests want restaurants and restaurant workers to take care of them, guests need to take care of restaurants and restaurant workers by getting vaccinated and by masking.”