OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has brought back a statewide mask requirement and ordered all public, private and charter school employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as subject to their employment.
The governor’s announcement Wednesday comes as COVID-19 cases surge and Washington’s hospitals are straining under a shortfall of health care staffers.
Inslee’s orders represent some of the strictest measures in the nation to tamp down another wave of the coronavirus. They have already brought fresh rounds of protests to the Capitol campus by those opposed to the vaccine or government mandates.
In a news conference where he was joined by state Schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal and Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah, Inslee said Washington is breaking new records for hospitalizations.
“More than 95% of the COVID hospitalizations we see today are among the unvaccinated,” said Inslee, adding: “And it is heart-rending for us to see losing our neighbors, our co-workers, our students to a preventable disease.”
The indoor mask mandate is effective on Aug. 23 and includes those vaccinated and unvaccinated, according to Inslee’s office. Exemptions to the mask requirement are limited to cases where vaccinated people are working in office spaces not easily accessible and small, private indoor gatherings where everyone is vaccinated.
Those working alone indoors with no public face-to-face interaction are also exempt.
While masks aren’t required for crowded outdoor settings like fairs, farmers markets and concerts, the state Department of Health is strongly recommending them for such events.
The indoor mask mandate arrives as some local health officials — like in King County, and just a few hours earlier on Wednesday, in Pierce County — have announced their own mask guidelines.
As cases rose and the delta variant ballooned, Inslee earlier this month ordered most state workers — and hundreds of thousands of health care employees — to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.
The orders have drawn a fresh round of condemnation from Republican state lawmakers who have broadly opposed Inslee’s use of emergency powers during the 18-month-and-counting pandemic.
“It is wrong for the governor to force caring, experienced, and dedicated educators to get a vaccination, or have their jobs, livelihoods, and dreams ripped away from them,” said Rep. Alex Ybarra, R-Quincy, in a statement. “It was my choice to get vaccinated. That’s the way it should be — a personal health-care choice.”
In a statement, GOP Senate Minority Leader John Braun of Centralia said that, “No other governor has gone so far to take deeply personal health-care choices away from people and force them to inject something into their bodies.”
Inslee’s vaccine mandate for thousands of state employees, contractors and now K-12 and university employees is, in fact, likely the strictest in the nation.
Wednesday’s order expands that requirement to K -12 educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers and others working in school facilities who will have to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18. Since it takes time to get two shots and for the second shot to take full effect, the process must be started much earlier than that.
Higher-education staff and contractors also fall under the mandate, as well as certified, licensed and contracted early learning and child-care providers.
And, the higher education mandate includes coaches. Inslee said Washington State University (WSU) football Coach Nick Rolovich’s decision not to get vaccinated did not play in his decision either way on the new orders. Inslee said coaches are just like other higher education employees, subject to the mandate.
License-exempt employees in early learning, child-care and youth-development programs also fall under the vaccine mandate. Those who refuse will lose their jobs unless they qualify for medical or religious exemptions.
All of those categories amount to roughly 363,000 workers covered under Wednesday’s order, according to Inslee’s office.
Medical and religious exemptions apply for all workers under this mandate, including school employees.
Tribal schools are not included in the vaccine mandate.
Third school mandate in nation
Wednesday’s announcement comes about a week after Reykdal sent Inslee a letter “strongly encouraging” him to include school employees in his sweeping order requiring state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
In recent weeks there’s been a push by national and local elected officials, health experts and teachers union leadership to require a vaccine mandate for school employees. At Wednesday’s news conference, Inslee became the third governor in the country to require some sort of vaccine proof for school employees. Although Inslee’s order has been the most stringent.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered private- and public-school employees to either show proof of vaccinations or be subject to weekly testing. About two weeks ago, Hawaii Gov. David Ige included teachers in his proclamation that requires state and county workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested regularly.
The largest school district in Washington has taken its own steps toward a vaccine requirement. Seattle Public Schools is requiring all employees who aren’t represented by a union to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, according to an email interim Superintendent Brent Jones sent employees last week. Employees have until Oct. 18 to become fully vaccinated. Limited medical and religious exemptions will be allowed.
Of the Seattle district’s 11,685 employees, 3,447 — or about 29% — are not represented by a union. Jones encouraged union employees to follow suit and has directed staff to immediately begin bargaining so this requirement will apply to all employees.
Seattle Education Association is currently in bargaining and has come out in support of a vaccination requirement. Unions can bargain with school districts to negotiate time off to receive the vaccine and recover from symptoms of the vaccine, Inslee said.
Many state colleges and universities have mandated vaccines for students and staff, but with broad exemption clauses that allow people to opt out for personal or philosophical reasons.
WSU said last week that it will no longer allow students to claim exemptions for personal or philosophical reasons, citing an increased threat of the delta variant. Meanwhile, University of Washington President Ana Mari Cauce announced that the UW was working to change the requirement for students and staff.
Return of protests
Like Inslee’s earlier vaccine mandate for state workers, the public-sector unions — which are some of Democrats’ biggest political allies in Olympia — are expected to bargain with the state over the new requirements.
The new vaccine requirements will affect bus drivers, paraeducators, grounds and maintenance crew, those who work in nutrition services and administrative staff, Service Employees International Union Local 925 spokesperson Binah Palmer said.
SEIU 925 signed on to a letter with other unions — including the Washington Education Association (WEA) — declaring their intent to bargain, according to Palmer.
“We’re polling members to see what their priorities are in the event that vaccines are required in their workplaces, so bargaining will be based on some of the results we get,” Palmer wrote in an email before the announcement.
The WEA supports the new vaccine requirements, President Larry Delaney said in a statement, adding, “By vaccinating staff we reduce the possibility of infecting those who cannot be vaccinated, including our students under 12 years old.”
The new mandates have also brought the return of protests — widely seen last year in Olympia — against Inslee’s emergency orders and government restrictions amid the pandemic. On Friday, a few hundred protesters rallied against vaccine mandates at the Capitol campus, followed by a smaller crowd Monday.
Wednesday’s news conference had been scheduled at a nearby elementary school, but Inslee’s office moved it instead to the Capitol after reports of protesters heading there.
Those demonstrators appeared instead at the Capitol steps, bearing signs that read “No jab,” “Unmask our kids” and “Liberty over tyranny.”
As Inslee spoke, they could be heard chanting against the new orders, shouting “We do not consent.”
Asked about the demonstrations, Inslee said he believed people also have a right to be able to go to schools or the grocery store without being infected by someone who isn’t vaccinated.
“The freedom from COVID is something that is a freedom that we are protecting here,” he said, adding later: “We are protecting your freedom to be alive.”