The end to statewide mandates on masking indoors and at schools is in sight as Gov. Jay Inslee set the removal of the requirement for March 21.
During a Feb. 17 press conference, Inslee announced the end to mandates in a large number of settings. The action specifically affects schools and child care facilities, restaurants and bars, churches and places of worship, indoor athletic facilities including gyms and recreation centers, grocery stores, businesses and retail establishments.
Masks will still be required in health care facilities like hospitals and dentist offices, long-term care facilities, correctional facilities, and public transit, which includes taxis, rideshare services and school buses. Private businesses and local governments who want to continue requiring masks will be allowed to do so.
Inslee also announced the state will drop its vaccination requirement for large events beginning March 1.
“This is good news for us to have relief in sight,” Inslee said.
The governor said March 21 was selected based on modeling which showed the current rate of hospitalizations will be at an acceptable level at that time at less than five per 100,000 of population in the prior seven days.
The governor noted those who want to continue wearing masks won’t have to stop.
“That will be part of our order, to protect you and your ability (to wear a mask) should you desire to do so,” Inslee said.
That protection includes students in schools.
“We know that we have some good news here, but we know we have a journey still ahead of us to get these hospitalization numbers down so that people can go into hospitals and get treated when they need it, for heart attacks and car accidents and everything else,” Inslee said.
The governor acknowledged the date set for the mandate’s removal has received feedback from Washingtonians on both sides of the fence. Some have said the timeline is too far out, while others believe it’s too soon.
“I know that there are some people who feel that it should’ve been ended earlier. I also know there’s a lot of people who think it maybe is ending too soon,” Inslee said.
For the former group, Inslee pointed to the 1,000 COVID-19 deaths in the state in January, while for the latter he said he is confident the number of cases will not overload hospitals.
Inslee said Washington’s state of emergency will not be lifted at the same time the mask mandate ends. He pointed to a number of reasons, which included access to federal funding and maintaining protections for workers who want to wear masks, among others.
As he pointed to the many other phases of reopening the state has undertaken, Inslee said what he announced Thursday is “removing one of the last vestiges of things that are inhibiting for people.”
“Our businesses are not closed. Our gyms are open. Our restaurants are open. Our schools are open,” Inslee said.
Though COVID-19 hospitalizations are on the decline, Inslee said the state rate of cases currently remains “extremely high.”
“No doubt the health care system is still stressed in many ways and it’s going to continue to be so,” said Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah.
Shah said the current protocols add an additional burden to the health care system when patients who are admitted to the hospital for reasons other than COVID-19 test positive.
“Any time you throw in COVID as part of the mix, it now adds a burden of care and infection control to the practitioner,” Shah said. “That is something we’re hearing every day from our hospital partners.”
Shah urged Washingtonians to “respect the rules of the road” if local health jurisdictions or businesses decide to still require masking after the statewide mandate goes away. He also encouraged others to respect individuals who choose to wear masks. He said masks are still recommended from a public health standpoint, even when the mandate goes away.
Both Shah and Inslee pointed to COVID-19 vaccinations as an integral part to help stop a resurgence in the disease. Inslee said unvaccinated individuals are 16 times more likely to be hospitalized if they get COVID-19 than those who are vaccinated.
Shah noted more than 72% of the eligible population in Washington is fully vaccinated.
“It is not that percentage in every part of our state, in every community, in every neighborhood, and that is the challenge,” Shah said. “If we could get that percentage (of vaccinations) all the way through we would be in a markedly different place.”
Inslee acknowledged the threat of COVID-19 will not be eliminated on March 21, but he feels mechanisms like vaccinations will help keep the disease’s impact low. Shah added the removal of the mandate is based on sound reasoning.
“We don’t know how long COVID is going to be around, but we want to go on with our activities and enjoy those activities — but that we do so safely,” Shah said.
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