OLYMPIA — Washingtonians can ditch face masks in most settings starting March 12. That’s nine days sooner than state officials originally sketched out.
The move hastens the state’s march toward normalcy, as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations continue to fall from this winter’s record-high numbers.
“We are turning a page in our fight against the COVID virus,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday at a news conference. “This page will be based more on empowering individuals and families in protecting themselves rather than based on government restrictions.”
Inslee was joined by the governors of California and Oregon in choosing March 12 to sunset their respective mask mandates.
The decision was spurred over the weekend by a major shift in guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead of broad masking recommendations based on case counts, the federal agency is focusing on whether those infections pose a threat to local health care systems.
In low- to medium-risk counties, the CDC said, masks can safely be taken off. As of last week, that includes 30 of Washington’s 39 counties.
Earlier this month, Inslee described March 21 as the “magic point,” defined as when daily COVID admissions fall to five per 100,000 residents, which wouldn’t overburden the hospital system. Recent modeling shows the state is “closing rapidly” on that number, though it may not quite be there by next week, Inslee said Monday.
The governor said he will lay out the “next chapter” in the state’s response to the pandemic in coming days. The plan will ensure an adequate supply of vaccines and personal protective equipment, he said.
It won’t, however, include ending the statewide emergency.
That declaration won’t be lifted “in the near future,” he said. It is a necessary tool for the state to mandate masks in hospitals, long-term care facilities and prisons, to protect employees who choose to mask up at work from punishment and to receive federal funding.
“But I would note that we have now removed, if you ask the common citizen, 95% of the things that people have found controversial,” he said.
State Republican leaders said Monday the mask mandate and state of emergency should end immediately.
“Wearing a mask in public should be a personal choice. We should end the mask mandate today instead of almost two weeks from now,” Senate and House minority leaders John Braun, R-Centralia, and J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said in a joint statement.
The two GOP leaders said they were glad the mandate will disappear sooner but “disappointed that there seems to be no end in sight for the one-man rule he has enjoyed.”
Rep. Lillian Ortiz-Self, D-Mukilteo, said the earlier expiration date will elicit “mixed feelings” among her constituents.
“Some people are still scared and concerned about COVID. They will want to feel assured they will still be safe,” she said. “Others are ready. They feel it is time for some relief.”
In Washington, masks will still be required in health care, long-term care and correctional facilities. Per federal law, face coverings must also be worn on public buses, light rail and in airports and airplanes.
Local health officers as well as businesses and local governments can still impose their own requirements. Snohomish County’s health officials have said they plan on deferring to state guidance.
School districts can make their own rules, too. But many K-12 leaders across the state have already signaled they will treat masks as optional after the state lifts its requirement.
“Some families may decide they are done wearing masks altogether, others will continue wearing them,” Everett Superintendent Ian Saltzman wrote to families this month. “We will support you, no matter what you decide.”
Under the CDC’s new guidance, masks are no longer required on school buses. However, in Washington, students and drivers must still wear them until the mandate ends at 11:59 p.m. March 11.
According to the Snohomish Health District’s most recent coronavirus data, local case counts are still declining. As of Friday, 48 people were hospitalized with the disease, compared to the county’s record of more than 200.