Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks as he gives his annual State of the State address on Jan. 11 at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks as he gives his annual State of the State address on Jan. 11 at the Capitol in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren, File)

Governor: Masks can come off March 21 in most public settings

They’ll still be required in some places, but Washington is following several other states now lifting mandates.

OLYMPIA — Washington’s mask mandate for schools, restaurants and commercial settings will end March 21 as the state takes another stride toward “regaining a normal life,” Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.

“I think it’s fair to say that the masking requirement in our places of work and in our schools has been a significant source of frustration to people,” he said, “to all of us.”

But face coverings will still be required in health care settings such as hospitals, outpatient clinics and dental offices, as well as in long-term-care and correctional facilities, Inslee said at a news conference.

And under federal law, masks must still be worn when traveling on public buses, light rail and school buses, he said.

Washington joins a growing list of states ditching an effective, and divisive, restriction as COVID cases decline. California eased requirements Tuesday. Oregon’s is set to end no later than March 31.

Inslee chose March 21 because it is the “magic point” where he and his scientific advisors think daily COVID hospital admissions will be low enough to prevent further stress on the state’s health care system.

That’s not soon enough for some and too soon for others, he acknowledged.

“I know it’s been a long, long journey. I do understand the desire to do this today,” he said. “It would not be safe to do this today.”

As for those who think the mandate should lift sooner, Inslee said, “all I can say is we lost 1,000 people in January to this disease.”

The Republican leaders of the state House and Senate strongly disagreed with the timing. The current mandate has been in place since August.

“It’s time to end state mask mandates now. Don’t wait another month. If someone wants to wear a mask in public, it should be by choice — not by mandate,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal, who joined Inslee at the news conference, had publicly called for lifting the mandate while maintaining strong safety protocols and making rapid tests available on campuses.

“This is a big moment,” he said, adding that schools are going to look quite different on March 21.

That’s because masks are not all that are going away.

Starting March 21, a host of other requirements will be converted to recommendations. These will cover social distancing — schools are now urged to keep students at least three feet apart in classrooms, for example — as well as ventilation and sanitation. The changes could affect athletics and other extracurricular activities.

Specific guidance is due March 7 from the state Department of Health.

Schools will still be required to report cases and outbreaks, and to cooperate with public health authorities in responding to them.

Students and staff with symptoms of COVID-19 will still have to quarantine away from school buildings. If students or staff members test positive, they must remain at home, per isolation protocols issued by state and federal health authorities.

The leader of the statewide teacher’s union voiced appreciation of having time to prepare.

“Front-line educators see the challenges that we must address to have a smooth transition,” Larry Delaney, president of Washington Education Association, said in a statement. “We are pleased that districts will have adequate time to anticipate issues with staffing adequacy and inequities along with mask access for those who want them.”

Inslee also said Thursday that proof of vaccination will not be required at large outdoor events — events with crowds of 500 or more — starting March 1. Starting Friday, those events don’t require masks, either.

Meanwhile, on March 1, King County will stop making people show proof of COVID vaccination to enter restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms.

Even as rules are eased, businesses and local governments can keep in place vaccination or face mask requirements for workers or customers, Inslee said. School districts can still choose to have students and teachers wear masks.

When asked, Inslee didn’t have a suggestion for how a business owner who enforces a mask requirement might deal with patrons who object.

“This will be up to them. They will have freedom to make a decision on what works for themselves and their customers,” he said. “And if they don’t want to have a frustrated customer on occasion, they may not have their own individual mandate. That is a decision they will be free to make.”

Erasure of this vestige of the state’s pandemic response comes as new infections and COVID-related hospitalizations drop. Still, transmission of the potentially deadly virus is high across Washington. On Tuesday, there were 3,897 new cases reported by the state Department of Health.

(Office of the Governor)

(Office of the Governor)

Snohomish County officials signaled approval of the governor’s actions this week.

Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said he “would not expect negative consequences” from the downgrading of outdoor mask requirements in the near future. When asked about indoor mask mandates being dropped, he cautioned that rushing could “ruin what was almost right.”

“I have reason to believe that the governor is aware of that, too,” Spitters said, “and that his recommendations or policy action will reflect that reality.”

Local health districts still have the authority to make their own rules, and Spitters said it’s “certainly within our powers and duties to do so,” although he’ll first defer to the state.

“My tendency and preference is to harmonize and trust that the state guidance will be logical, prudent and appropriate,” he said.

Local case counts are continuing in the right direction. Last week, 3,507 new cases were reported in Snohomish County. Compare that to the more than 15,000 tallied at the peak of the local omicron surge. The decreasing case counts have dropped the county’s two-week case rate to 982 per 100,000.

As of Tuesday, 80 people were hospitalized with the virus in Snohomish County, compared to the more than 200 in hospital beds a few weeks ago.

“The trajectory is great, but … we’re still at a relatively high level compared to historical norms,” Spitters said.

Free KN-90 masks are now available at Sno-Isle and Everett public libraries.

“Some people may be wondering why free masks are available now when there’s talk of mask requirements ending,” Spitters said. “And put simply, they haven’t ended yet, and we want people to continue wearing the best quality masks they can get their hands on, and we have these available.”

Despite sunsetting mandates, Spitters said, the Snohomish Health District might issue recommendations that people wear masks in certain settings.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @dospueblos.

Claudia Yaw: 425-339-3449; claudia.yaw@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @yawclaudia.

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