Washington state’s mask mandate goes into effect, regardless of vaccination status

A universal mask mandate for indoor public spaces went into effect in Washington state on Monday.

There will be some limited exceptions when face coverings won't be required indoors, such as office spaces not easily accessible to the public where others are vaccinated, and when working alone indoors or in a vehicle without public face-to-face interaction. Small, private gatherings indoors where everyone is vaccinated are also exempt.

The mandates follow weeks of escalating COVID-19 case rates and increasing hospitalizations caused primarily by the delta variant of the coronavirus. Inslee’s office said Washington state recently broke its record for COVID-19 hospitalizations, which was previously set in December.

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The new rules also come after Snohomish, Thurston and Pierce counties issued masking directives, and King County released a universal masking recommendation for residents.

The governor’s office is working with state partners to reestablish an enforcement system, according to a spokesperson.

"The governor’s office and other state partners are working together on reestablishing an enforcement system. There will be more details in the coming days," the spokesperson said.

Public school employees must get vaccinated in Washington state

Gov. Jay Inslee also announced that all K-12 public school staff in Washington state will be required to get vaccinated for COVID-19 by Oct. 18.

All education staff, faculty and contractors at the state's public higher education facilities also need to be fully vaccinated by that date. Those who are not fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 risk losing their jobs, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday.

Inslee’s office said the latest mandate also applies to college coaches, including Washington State football coach Nick Rolovich, who said he has declined to be vaccinated for personal reasons. Rolovich is one of two state employees scheduled to make more than $3 million this year along with Washington football coach Jimmy Lake.

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Just like a vaccine mandate announced last week that applies to most state workers, private health care and long-term care employees, weekly testing will not be an option for school and college employees who want to avoid vaccination and maintain their employment, and the only opt-out is a medical or religious exemption. The vaccine mandate does not apply to students, though K-12 students and staff are required to wear masks when the school year starts next month.

The Democratic governor’s mandate appears to be the most sweeping of actions taken by any other state. Last week, California announced a similar mandate that covers both public and private schools, but allows a testing option. Earlier this month, Hawaii required all Department of Education staffers to disclose their vaccination status or face weekly testing.

Washington’s vaccine mandate also applies to most childcare and early learning providers who care for children from multiple households. Tribal schools are not included.

Inslee’s press conference was originally set to be held at an Olympia elementary school, but was moved to the governor’s conference room due to security concerns after an anti-mandate group planned to protest at the school. Last Friday, more than 300 people gathered at the Capitol to protest the state worker and health care vaccine mandates.

Protestors still took to the state capital as Inslee made his announcement.

As for the expanded indoor mask mandate, some areas had already imposed directives in their areas, and the state’s local health officers have recently recommended the wearing of masks indoors. Inslee’s office said the expansion starting Aug. 23 is needed because of a sharp increase in hospitalizations.

The statewide mask mandate builds on the recommendation that Inslee made last month to follow federal guidance and "recommend" that everyone regardless of vaccination status wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas where there is "substantial or high" rates of COVID-19.

As of Monday, all of the state’s 39 counties were in the "high" threshold range, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There have been more than 468,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus nearly 49,000 "probable" cases — in Washington state, and 6,269 deaths. State health officials say that most of the state’s new infections are caused by the delta variant, a more contagious version of the coronavirus.

As of last week, nearly 71.5% of people age 12 and older have initiated vaccination and about 63% are fully vaccinated.

Do I have to get vaccinated?

Here are more details about the vaccine requirements in Washington state from the office of the governor:

Educator vaccine requirement

  • K -12 educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers and others working in school facilities will have until October 18 to be fully vaccinated as a condition of employment.
  • The requirement includes public, private and charter schools, and comes as schools across the state prepare to return for the 2021-2022 school year amid rapidly increasing case and hospitalization numbers. It does not include tribal schools.
  • This does not impact students, regardless of age.
  • As with state employees and private healthcare workers, there will be no test-out option.
  • Unions may bargain with school districts to negotiate time off to receive the vaccine or recover from symptoms of the vaccine.
  • Just like the state worker mandate, there are limited exceptions under law which employees may apply for, including legitimate medical reasons and sincerely held religious beliefs. Individuals who refuse to get vaccinated will be subject to dismissal.

Higher education and childcare/early learning requirement

  • Vaccines also required for employees in Washington’s higher education institutions, as well as for most childcare and early learning providers who serve children from multiple households.
  • Education staff, faculty and contractors are required to be fully vaccinated by October 18, consistent with the state worker vaccination requirement timeline.
  • Childcare providers affected by the requirement include the following groupsLicensed, certified and contracted early learning and childcare programs
  • Licensed, certified and contracted early learning and childcare programs
  • License-exempt early learning, childcare and youth-development programs
  • Contractors (coaches, volunteers, trainers, etc.)
  • Not included in this mandate are providers delivering FFN (family, friends and neighbors) care.

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.