OLYMPIA, Wash. - Beginning March 21, masks will no longer be required in most places in Washington state including restaurants, bars, schools, childcare facilities, gyms, houses of worship and grocery stores, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
Masks will still be required in health care settings such as hospitals, outpatient and dental offices, long-term care settings and correctional facilities.
Inslee also said starting March 1, vaccine verification for large events will no longer be required.
Federal law still requires face masks in certain settings such as public transportation and school buses.
Inslee said that the late March date to lift the mask mandate is based on hospital admission projections. During Thursday’s news conference, he showed a chart that shows hospitalizations for COVID-19 are about 20 per 100,000 people. His goal is to get that number down to 5, which is when he said hospitals can return to more normal operations.
"To those who think maybe it should end earlier, all I can tell you is we lost 1,000 people in January to this disease," he said. "And when we make decisions, it seems to me we ought to have a recognition of how dangerous and deadly this disease still is after this period of time."
Where you will and wlll not need masks starting March 21, 2022.
The announcement comes as Washington's outdoor mask mandate is set to expire on Feb. 18. Non-emergency surgeries can also resume on that date.
Businesses and local governments can still choose to implement vaccination or face mask requirements for workers or customers, and school districts can still choose to have students and teachers wear masks.
King County mask mandate
Public Health Seattle & King County said it would continue to evaluate the appropriate time to lift the county's indoor masking order: "If cases and hospitalizations continue to fall and our hospitals recover and stabilize, as we all hope they will, it is reasonable that we will be at a place to lift the local indoor mask mandate, but we are not there yet."
What's not yet known is which counties or school districts may decide to continue on with local mask mandates.
Like the rest of the country, Washington — which first imposed a statewide mask mandate in June 2020 — has seen a steady decline in both cases and hospitalizations since the height of the omicron surge last month.
Last May, the state changed its requirements to align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allowed vaccinated people to go without a mask indoors, but that exception was rescinded in August of 2021 after the delta variant emerged. A face covering requirement for outdoor events of 500 or more people was imposed in September, but Inslee announced last week that mandate would lift on Friday.
Democratic governors in several states have already ended or set dates to end masking rules in public places or in schools. New Mexico’s governor announced Thursday that the statewide mask mandate there was being lifted, effective immediately, leaving Hawaii as the only state that has not indicated when its indoor mask mandates may be rescinded.
CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Wednesday that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks.
Republican legislative leaders criticized the news Thursday, saying that it was time to end the mask mandate now.
"If someone wants to wear a mask in public, it should be by choice – not by mandate," Sen. John Braun and Rep. J.T. Wilcox said in a joint statement.
There have been more than 1.4 million confirmed or probable cases in the state since the start of the pandemic and 11,522 deaths.
More than 80% of the Washington population age 5 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, and nearly 73% is fully vaccinated.
As of this week, more than 2.5 million people have either received a booster or a third dose, according to the Department of Health.
Masks in schools
The state said during the week of March 7, the Washington State Department of Health will issue updated guidance for K-12 schools that will go into effect March 21.
Schools will still be required to report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks, and cooperate with public health authorities in responding to these consistent with procedures for other communicable diseases, the governor's office said.
On Wednesday, 49 superintendents signed a letter to Gov. Inslee, Superintendent Chris Reykdal and Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah petitioning for an end to masks in the classroom, as well as making contact tracing the responsibility of the Department of Health.
Superintendent Reykdal joined Inslee at the news conference to discuss next steps for mask requirements in schools.
Vaccine verification policy ending in King County
Just a day earlier, King County announced that it will end the county's vaccine verification policy to enter restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms on March 1.
Executive Dow Constantine said that new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are decreasing.
More than 87% of King County residents ages 12 years and older are fully vaccinated, and vaccination and booster rates continue to increase.
"While King County is lifting this requirement, businesses and organizations may still choose to continue requiring vaccines to protect themselves, their employees, their customers," Constantine said. "We support them in that choice."
King County’s vaccine requirement has been in effect since October 2021. People 12 years old and up must show proof that they are fully vaccinated or provide a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of entry.
This applied to restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters and other entertainment venues. The mandate also applies to outdoor events with more than 500 people in attendance.
Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also announced that they will begin, gradually, calling back to the office the thousands of county and city employees who have been working remotely for nearly two years. King County has an estimated 7,000 employees who have been working remotely, and Seattle has about 5,000.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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