There were few ripples Tuesday at businesses around the Seattle area as a new statewide order took effect mandating that businesses refuse service to customers who are not covering their nose and mouth to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Business owners at Crossroads Shopping Center in Bellevue said they didn’t anticipate even having to enforce the order. “I haven’t seen many people who aren’t wearing masks,” said Bulent Aki, the owner of Ebru Mediterranean Grill. Still, if an unmasked customer approached, he said he wouldn’t hesitate to refuse service. “I’m going to follow the law. And I love it. My strong opinion is everyone should follow the CDC’s guidelines. Period.”
In pre-pandemic times, the mall would typically have been packed during the weekday lunch rush. Tuesday, only a dozen diners were seated scattershot around the mall’s sprawling, but mostly empty, food court.
One of those was Microsoft employee Prem Prakash, who supports the new order and wants more restrictions on where people can be unmasked in public — including at the food court, where eaters removed masks, as the guidelines allow, to dig in to their dosas and noodles.
“We have two choices. Either a return to total lockdown, which would be catastrophic for the economy, or go harder into reopening, which would stress the health care system,” Prakash said from behind a respirator mask. “We will have to find new ways to act. And if businesses help us to follow these strict guidelines, that’s a good thing.”
But outside the Seattle metro area, where wearing masks has been less common, Tuesday saw a sharper shift.
Andy Thielen, the owner of T Brothers Liquor Lodge in Olympia, said Tuesday afternoon he’s had to turn away several customers who weren’t wearing face coverings — something he said should fall to city officials rather than business owners.
“It’s putting business owners in a very tough situation now that we’re having to police,” Thielen said. “We know we’re already going to lose customers who have taken the stance that they don’t want to wear masks.”
The July 2 order, which took effect Tuesday, is the latest in a string of public health proclamations from Gov. Jay Inslee that have paused reopening plans and ratcheted up masking protocols around the state as the daily COVID-19 case count has climbed. Authorities believe the increase isn’t wholly attributable to expanded testing, leading some officials to consider reversing steps they’ve taken to reopen the economy in recent weeks.
Inslee required Washingtonians to mask up in public two weeks ago. The same day, he mandated businesses in Yakima County, one of the places hardest-hit by the virus, to turn away unmasked customers. The latest order expanded that rule to the entire state.
In a news conference Tuesday, Inslee praised residents wearing facial coverings. Community leaders in both Western and Eastern Washington, Inslee said, have been telling him that more people appear to be complying with the requirement.
“This is a key to keep businesses open,” said Inslee, later calling it “simply a life-saving step.”
In King County, where most customers already wear masks as a matter of course, the order’s enactment went virtually unnoticed.
At the downtown Redmond Trader Joe’s, which has been limiting access to 40 shoppers at a time since the start of the pandemic, a greeter discouraged unmasked shoppers from entering the store — but not many people without facial coverings typically try to shop there, an employee said.
Thielen, the Olympia liquorstore owner, said he’s concerned the order is coming at a time when business is just starting to trickle back
“For the first few weeks of the pandemic, it was very slow, since a large portion of our business is to bars and restaurants,” Thielen said. “Then with the protesters coming downtown, people stayed away … It’s been a rough three or four months. For the governor to put it on us now to police this or potentially receive fines or have our license taken away — I just don’t think that’s right to put this on business owners.”
He continued, “I think there’s still the obvious difficulty of being behind a mask since people take cues from facial expressions … It’s been a little awkward at times, but it just is kind of something we’re all getting used to.”
At McDaniel’s Do It Center, a hardware store in Snohomish, only a few customers pushed back when they were asked to wear masks Tuesday, said manager Kevin Vieth.
“It hasn’t been very difficult, but there is a lot of generalized grumbling,” Vieth said, adding that most comments he’s heard were from people who think it’s too late to make a difference.
Other Washington employers said they feel Inslee’s order makes it easier to ask customers to mask up because businesses, too, now have a stake in avoiding sanctions for allowing customers to shop unmasked.
People can complain anonymously about businesses not complying with the order via an online form on the state’s coronavirus website. They can also contact the state Department of Labor and Industries, which will lead enforcement on the requirements, according to Inslee’s office.
Tyson Crudup, who runs Sage Brewing Company in Pasco, said he’s already been asking people to wear face coverings when they came in, so the new requirement makes enforcement smoother.
“It is an added layer of stress on the business owner,” Crudup said. “But it’s nice to have a little backing [from elected officials]. It gives us legitimacy.”
At Donna’s Travel Plaza in Tulalip, shift supervisor Misty Gonzales said the new order won’t change how she interacts with customers. Already, when an unmasked customer enters, “We kindly remind them to wear a mask,” Gonzales said. “Most go back to their trucks to get one. If not, we have some for sale.”
As COVID-19 cases increase across Washington, Inslee said in his Tuesday news conference that more people need to wear masks, keep their distance and stay home and isolated from others if they are feeling ill.
He called the use of masks a new strategy to flatten the curve of new cases a second time after the state tamped down initial outbreaks with the stay-at-home order that shuttered thousands of businesses and barred many social activities.
“We can do this again,” said Inslee. “This time we’re going to do it use masks and social distancing and contact tracing. Different strategies, different tools. But we want to be able to use these new tools to open up our economy.”
If new cases continue to rise, the state might ultimately have to go back to its heavier restrictions, said Inslee, who sported a Seattle Mariners mask during the news conference.
“If these trends were to continue, we would have to be prepared to go back to where we were in March,” Inslee said.
State Health Officer Kathy Lofy described the number of new cases as “a dramatic increase” that can only be partly attributed to expanded testing.
The increase is occurring in both new cases and related hospitalizations, Lofy said, and is being seen across both Eastern and Western Washington.
And the rise is not confined to a handful of hot spots, like long-term care facilities or food-processing plants, that featured prominently earlier in the pandemic, she said. New cases are still arising from those spots.
But Lofy also said new cases are being reported from retail stores, restaurants and child care centers, as well as also spreading within households where someone is infected. “If COVID-19 activity continues to increase throughout Washington during the summer months, our hospitals could be full of COVID-19 patients moving into the fall,” said Lofy. “Which would position us very poorly for the start of the school year and the anticipated fall wave” of the virus.
King County residents and businesses looking for free face masks should contact their cities or local chambers of commerce, said county spokesperson Chase Gallagher.
The county has distributed roughly 3 million masks so far and plans to hand out 7 million more through libraries and community groups in the coming weeks.