Not everyone is rushing toward a maskless future.
A week after the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Jay Inslee loosened mask requirements for people who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus, many businesses in King and Pierce counties are still playing it safe.
“We’re easing in for our employees and customers, many who aren’t ready to just rip that Band-Aid right off,” said Denise Moriguchi, president and CEO of Uwajimaya. For now, masks are still required in Uwajimaya stores. The company plans to reevaluate its policy in about a week, Moriguchi said.
Some stores are forging ahead and allowing vaccinated shoppers to browse mask-free. Others, meanwhile, are bracing for more confusion as they await more information from local officials.
“I can’t reiterate enough that this is hard and this is confusing,” said Andrea Reay, president and CEO of the Seattle Southside Chamber, which includes businesses in South King County.
King County’s top public health official, Dr. Jeff Duchin, has encouraged Seattle and King County residents to continue wearing face coverings in indoor public spaces, even if they’re vaccinated. The county public health department promises an update on its larger mask mandate later this week.
Reay said she expects the county to issue “more guidance encouraging more mask wearing.”
“Now, what that looks like?” she said. “We’re still waiting to get that information.”
Unwinding a year’s worth of pandemic restrictions will bring a flood of questions and public health implications. While some shoppers may be eager for fewer rules, many businesses are still unsure whether — and how — to check vaccine status if they begin to allow fully vaccinated customers to go mask-free.
With about 30% of King County residents and nearly 60% of Pierce County residents still unvaccinated, lifting mask rules in areas with lower rates of vaccination could worsen the pandemic’s disproportionate effects, and employees still waiting for their second dose could end up in contact with unmasked customers.
At Simply Hot Yoga and Wellness in Tacoma, business owner Monica Walker said that two weeks ago, she was mentally prepared to shut down her studio if Pierce County returned to Phase 1 of Washington’s multipart reopening plan.
Instead, Pierce County advanced to Phase 3, and Walker is now trying to decide whether she’ll allow fully vaccinated customers to remove their masks in the studio. She’s not in any hurry to change her current policy, though, which requires all clients to wear masks whenever they’re not practicing yoga.
“Things are so shifty, so change-y, that we don’t want to implement something and then have to roll it back,” she said. She’s also not sure how she would verify clients’ vaccination status.
“There’s the whole quirk of people maybe being dishonest, saying they’re vaccinated and they’re not,” she said. “Do you ask people to bring their vaccination cards in?”
Big local players lift mandates
Some of the region’s biggest names lifted restrictions after the CDC’s move last week.
Fully vaccinated shoppers can now enter Nordstrom, PCC, Trader Joe’s and Whole Foods without a mask, if allowed by local authorities. At Trader Joe’s, PCC and Whole Foods, masks will still be required for employees.
After announcing it would lift its mask mandate earlier this week, REI said Friday masks would still be required in King County stores after the county’s top health officer said Thursday people should continue wearing masks in indoor public spaces. REI said its requirement would be in place until 70% of King County residents 16 or older are fully vaccinated.
Though Kroger, which owns QFC and Fred Meyer, dropped its mask requirement elsewhere, a spokesperson said masks will still be required for employees and customers in Washington stores.
So far, few businesses are requiring any proof of vaccination.
“We are trusting our community to be honest and respectful of our desire to create a safe environment for all,” said REI spokesperson Megan Behrbaum.
Labor groups, however, say speeding toward reopening could risk worker health.
United Food and Commercial Workers union Local 21, which represents grocery store workers at QFC, PCC and other stores, “has strong concerns about the CDC’s movement away from masks,” said Tom Geiger, special projects director.
“They cause confusion and lack any real way to be enforced,” Geiger said. “Until we know that most everyone is vaccinated, and because there is no real way to know who may or may not be vaccinated when they are coming into the grocery stores, we continue to strongly support everyone to wear a mask when in the store as a way to assure the highest level of safety.”
The union said it supports “new clarifying guidelines by Seattle-King County Public Health.”
Catherine Willis Cleveland, CEO of Central Co-op, said the co-op’s stores in Seattle and Tacoma would maintain existing in-store mask requirements to minimize potential exposure and reduce staff burden.
“There’s no easy way to ensure that everybody is, in fact, vaccinated who doesn’t wear a mask,” Willis Cleveland said. “So I’m taking the real cautious route of having folks keep their masks on when they come shop in our store.”
Maintaining the mask-on policy also means her staff won’t “have to make any kind of judgment call” about whether customers are fully vaccinated.
Amazon, which employs roughly 80,000 people in Washington state, told employees Wednesday that it will begin lifting masking requirements next week for all fully vaccinated U.S. warehouse workers in areas, like Washington, where masking is no longer required by local regulation.
The company is asking workers to enter information about their vaccination history in an internal company app and will begin lifting masking requirements late next week, but will not require workers to upload pictures of their vaccine card until mid-June. An Amazon spokesperson did not respond to questions about how it would verify whether employees are vaccinated before they showed their vaccine card.
Boeing told employees Wednesday it would lift mask mandates for fully vaccinated employees at some work sites in other states, but masks will still be required in Washington.
Others approaching with caution
At Elliott Bay Books, keeping a mask requirement in place was “a really easy decision to make,” said General Manager Tracy Taylor.
“Our staff is not finished with the vaccination process.”
The store will reevaluate the policy in three to four weeks. “That doesn’t mean we will lift the mask policy at that time, but we certainly won’t be doing it before that,” Taylor said.
Rainier Health & Fitness Director Alicia Haskins said the gym would also wait, at least until its employees are all two weeks past their second vaccine, to consider allowing members inside without masks.
Reached by phone Wednesday as she checked members into the gym and scanned their temperatures, said she also worries about the older adults who rely on the nonprofit facility.
“It’s also tempting because the more people we have in here exercising, the more we can be a sustainable business — but not if somebody gets sick,” she said.
Masks are just the first of many questions for organizations who shifted their operations during the pandemic.
Sue Potter, CEO of Nourish Pierce County, said the food bank network wasn’t yet ready to shift back to an indoor distribution model
“We don’t want to make all kinds of infrastructure changes in order to move indoors — only to have to go back to the curbside in a month or two,” Potter said. “I suspect we will gradually lift some of our self-imposed guidelines as things change for the better, but for now we have the ‘better safe, than sorry’ attitude.”
The organization will still require masks and social distancing for several reasons. The populations Nourish serves “are often some of the last people to have access to vaccines,” Potter said. And because the food bank will lose National Guard support at the end of June, Potter and her staff will need to bring back community volunteers and “are trying to assure them of a safe environment.”
El Centro de la Raza in Seattle will continue to require masks for its child care centers in Beacon Hill and the Chinatown International District and its other services.
“As long as we’re not at a higher rate of vaccination, we’re going to be on the side of being very cautionary,” said Executive Director Estela Ortega.
The nonprofit has been running pop-up vaccination clinics and encouraging people to get the shot in radio programs, bus ads, text campaigns and even advertisements in Valpak coupons.
Lifting mask requirements too quickly “poses a risk to all people,” Ortega said. “We know Latinos are out there in the workforce. They are essential workers. They are going to be more vulnerable if people are not masked and they’re not vaccinated on top of it.”
At malls, mask policies will be up to individual retailers. Bellevue Square “encourages guests to wear masks while in the shopping center and common areas,” a spokesperson said. Westlake Center “will continue to follow the state and local guidelines related to face coverings,” said a spokesperson.
At Seattle Center, masks are still required. Pike Place Market still requires masks at any market building or business, including common areas like bathrooms and elevators.
At Pike Place Market, vaccinated people are not required to wear masks outside, “although face masks are still recommended when gathering outdoors with large groups of strangers,” according to the market’s policy.
Hopping a flight? The rules are explicit there.
“No confusion here,” said Seattle-Tacoma International Airport spokesperson Perry Cooper. “Our message is to continue to remind people that you still need to wear masks during travel.”
Seattle Times business reporter Dominic Gates contributed to this story.