Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Dec. 13 at a news conference in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Dec. 13 at a news conference in Olympia. (AP Photo/Ted S. Warren)

Inslee: Mask mandate is going away, but not quite yet

The governor said he’ll say exactly when next week. Meanwhile, a pause on elective surgeries will end Feb. 17.

OLYMPIA — As mask mandates disappear around the country, Gov. Jay Inslee said Wednesday it will happen in Washington, too, very soon.

The governor said he’ll reveal exactly when next week.

“Today is not the day to totally eliminate masks. The day is close,” he said at a virtual news conference. “It is no longer a matter of if. It is a matter of when.”

COVID cases are falling “like a rock” after a rocket-like surge fueled by the omicron variant, he said. But with hospitalizations still at their highest in the pandemic, it’s too soon to shed a restriction that’s helping curb the spread, he said.

“We’re happy to be on that downward slope,” he said. “We want to see a little more data to pick the right day.”

In Snohomish County, the rapid decline in positive cases continues, with the health district reporting 4,258 new cases last week. That’s less than half the number of cases reported the week prior. The infection rate of 1,662 per 100,000 residents is still well above earlier waves.

The number of COVID-positive residents in local hospitals has also been cut in half since the peak of the omicron surge. As of Tuesday, there were 108 people hospitalized with the virus in Snohomish County.

Meanwhile Wednesday, Inslee said hospitals can resume non-urgent medical procedures Feb. 17. They’ve been paused statewide for three weeks.

A mandate that masks be worn at outdoor events with 500 or more people will be lifted Feb. 18, he said.

And the deployment of the Washington National Guard to several hospitals, including Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, will not be extended when the 30-day mission concludes later this month.

“They quickly integrated to become valuable members of our team and we thank them for their dedication,” Darren Redick, CEO of Providence Northwest, said in a statement. “We have been planning for the resumption of surgeries and look forward to caring for members of our community who have delayed care.”

Pressure on Inslee to address the mask mandate comes as other states ditch their requirements. California drops theirs next week — though some counties intend to keep one in place — and Oregon next month.

Inslee acted last August to reimpose a requirement that masks be worn by everybody, regardless of vaccination status, in retail stores, restaurants and other public indoor settings. Children under the age of 5 and people with medical conditions that prevent wearing a face covering are exempt.

The mandate also applies to classrooms and other school settings.

Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal on Wednesday called for ending the restriction while maintaining strong safety protocols, including availability of rapid tests.

“As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials,” he said in a statement. “I recommend the Governor and Department of Health change the guidance to reflect this in the coming weeks.”

But the leader of the statewide teacher’s union said moving too swiftly could be damaging.

“At a time when schools, particularly those in communities of color and low-income communities, are facing staffing shortages, we must anticipate that lifting the mask mandate will exacerbate the shortages and could interrupt learning,” said Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association.

State Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, hoped Inslee would set a date for ending the mandate. When the governor didn’t, the Republican leader expressed his dismay.

“Our rate of decline in cases is better than Oregon’s, but they and California both announced dates for the end to their mask mandates. Somehow the science is different in here?” he said in a statement. “I don’t know if he is indifferent or just unprepared. Come on, governor, the people of Washington deserve more.”

Inslee said he is unswayed by what governors in other states are doing.

“I am the governor of Washington. I make decisions based on science and the health of our people,” he said. “And I think we’re doing a pretty darn good job of it.”

Herald writer Claudia Yaw contributed to this report.

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

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