EVERETT — It’s been two weeks since Gov. Jay Inslee and public health experts said it’s safe for fully vaccinated Washingtonians to be mask-free in most public settings.
And at the current rate, sometime in the next few weeks 70% or more of Washingtonians will have received at least one dose.
But don’t throw your masks away, officials say.
While vaccines provide robust protection from COVID, it’s going to take time to reach strong enough levels of immunity statewide before people can be mask-free everywhere, state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said Wednesday.
Schools, hospitals and public transportation all still require them. And businesses can still require patrons to mask up.
No matter your vaccination status, Washingtonians must “respect the rules of the room you’re in,” Shah said.
“If you’re vaccinated, you’re protected and in most settings, you do not need to wear a mask, unless someone is asking you to,” he said. “If you’re unvaccinated, you are not protected and you’ve got to wear a mask or else you’re at risk for COVID-19.”
Some businesses have already dropped their masking requirements.
Last week, Kroger announced that fully vaccinated people could shop mask-free at its grocery stores, including QFC and Fred Meyer. Unvaccinated shoppers are asked to continue wearing masks, and the company is offering staff $100 to get their shots.
Other retailers are keeping them in place, for now.
Last week, King County health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin issued an order that strongly advises fully vaccinated residents to continue wearing masks in indoor spaces.
“Some may wonder why they should wear a mask if they are vaccinated, especially since we agree that COVID-19 vaccines give high protection against infection and spreading the virus, and unvaccinated people are the ones at risk to acquire and spread COVID-19,” Duchin said in a statement. “It’s because we have no way to know who is vaccinated and who isn’t, and it’s impractical for businesses to determine that. If unvaccinated people do not wear masks, the risk for COVID-19 spread increases.”
In Snohomish County, health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said he endorses Duchin’s order but has no plans to make a similar one.
“It’s very difficult to vet at the front door who is truly vaccinated and who is not,” Spitters said. “It’s not unreasonable to think some people who aren’t vaccinated might ride along with the vaccinated folks and not mask, making it difficult for staff and customers to know they’re truly safe in terms of people who could be transmitting not being masked.”
There are other reasons why someone may continue wearing a mask in public, including people who are immunosuppressed and receive lesser protection from vaccines, or others with increased vulnerability to COVID.
Parents also have a responsibility to model good behavior, Shah said.
“I’ve got three kids who are under the age of 12, and every time they see Mom and Dad, who are both health care providers and champions of wearing masks, if we get out of the car and we don’t have our masks on, our kids are, one, going to make sure we get our masks on, but number two, our 4-year-old will not wear his mask unless he sees Mom and Dad wearing theirs,” Shah said.
Additionally, after a nearly yearlong mask mandate, some people may be unsure about being in a public setting without one.
“We do not want to shame people if they decide they’re more comfortable wearing a mask,” Shah said. “Be civil. That, I think, has been one of the biggest challenges we’ve had throughout this pandemic. We’ve lost, as Americans, civility in the process.”