OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee has pushed up the timeline for lifting Washington’s COVID-19 mask requirements for schools and businesses to Saturday, March 12, after federal officials last week loosened public health guidelines on face coverings.

Made in conjunction with the governors of Oregon and California, Monday’s announcement comes as the number of cases and hospitalizations due to the new coronavirus in Washington continues to decline.

Inslee earlier this month had announced the mask orders — which cover grocery stores, child care facilities, gyms, bars and other indoor establishments — would lift March 21. But federal health regulators on Friday revised federal health guidelines and said masks were no longer necessary for many people.

As the virus’s omicron variant wanes, conversations are being sparked everywhere — from classrooms and homes to retail shops and executive suites — about when and how to return to a pre-pandemic modes of life.

As with much of the two years of public health regulations to stem the pandemic, the governor’s decision brought questions and critiques across the board. Republicans castigated the governor for moving too slowly.

“We’ve learned that it’s no longer necessary to keep our communities safe,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said in a news conference in reference to masking.


And then there was the Seattle Education Association, which quickly made clear it intends to raise concerns about any lift on masking through union negotiations.

Removing the mask mandate will fail students and educators who are or live with someone who is immunocompromised, children under 5 who can’t receive the vaccine, and those who are pregnant, said Jennifer Matter, president of the association.

“It is important that with masking changes the voices of those most vulnerable to COVID be heard, educators and students alike.” Matter said. “Their needs are historically dismissed in hasty moves to normalcy.”

And then there was Nathan Plutko, who has spent the past two years at Seattle’s DeLaurenti Food and Wine adjusting his business to outdoor dining amid COVID and working to keep his own staff and customers safe.

A co-owner of a DeLaurenti for 19 years, Plutko has a 2-year-old who’s too young to be vaccinated, he said, and will probably continue to wear a mask himself. But he’s not sure what to do with employees and the public when the mandate lifts. Before the pandemic, this was a hybrid grocery/wine retailer and dine-in stop, but now they only do outdoor dining.

“The market has been great and we’re ready for things to get back to normal, because there’s nothing like being here [Pike Place] in the spring and summer,” Plutko said. “But the top priority is making sure our employees feel safe and are safe, so I just don’t know when we’re going to actually go back to that point.


“We are like cautiously optimistic that we’re moving in the right direction and I know Inslee is one of the more careful governors in the country, so he’s getting it from both sides,” Plutko added. “He’s getting thanks and he’s also getting ‘what’s taking you so long’ from some people.”

With just under two weeks until the mandates lift for schools, parents like Beth Anderson also digested the decision Monday. Her two daughters, Catelyn, 12, and Julia, 11, attend Eckstein Middle School in northeast Seattle.

Catelyn received the adult vaccine, but Julia’s been vaccinated with the pediatric doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID vaccine and due to her age, she is ineligible for a booster. Monday’s news of the lift on masking in Washington coincided with the release of a report finding that the Pfizer shot is significantly less effective in preventing infection in kids ages 5-11 than with older children. 

Anderson said both her daughters are happy to be back in school in person and have done their due diligence to stay masked. The mother underscores to them the importance of staying masked to protect young children, older and immunocompromised people, as well as for their own health and safety.

“The lifting of the mask mandates makes me a little nervous,” said Anderson, adding later: “I feel like she’s still at risk and we don’t know what the long-term effects of COVID are.”

In recent weeks, the COVID exposure notifications have become fewer she said, but Anderson hopes she can convince her kids, especially Julia — who doesn’t turn 12 until August — to stay masked through the rest of the school year as a precaution.


“It might be hard if other kids aren’t wearing masks. There’s a peer pressure component and I understand it will be hard for her,” the mother said.

The state health department is expected to issue new guidance for K-12 schools next week.

Meanwhile, Inslee on Monday said he’ll reveal the “the next chapter” in the coming days for how the state will respond to COVID.

“We believe that this will be based … on a provision of empowering individuals and families to protect themselves, rather than having a mandate,” he said in Monday’s news conference. That plan is intended to make sure the state has among other things vaccines and personal protective equipment available, in case another variant emerges.

While the governor’s statewide mandates are the most comprehensive, other mask requirements are also set to fall.

King County will end its local mask order at the same time as the state’s mandate expires, County Executive Dow Constantine announced Monday. Snohomish County is likewise lifting its mask mandate, which applies to public indoor spaces, starting March 12.


And in the world of private enterprise, Amazon told employees Sunday it would no longer require unvaccinated warehouse workers to mask up, according to a memo viewed by CNN and other media outlets.

The company’s vaccinated warehouse workers have been allowed to work without masks in places where state or local rules permit doing so. Amazon initially lifted its mask mandate for vaccinated workers in May but reimposed it during COVID spikes associated with the delta and omicron variants.

Monday’s announcement by Inslee comes after officials with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday released updated guidance on the new coronavirus.

Inslee’s office on Friday said there were no plans to change Washington’s masking orders, but that officials would review the CDC guidance, and “there will be a broader discussion” with the governor’s office and the state health officials.

The new federal guidelines released Friday move away from looking at COVID case counts to a broader view of risk from the virus to a community. The previous guidelines recommended masks for those in communities with a substantial or high transmission of the virus — which was roughly 95% of U.S. counties.

The new system greatly changes the look of the CDC’s risk map and puts more than 70% of the U.S. population in counties where COVID-19 is posing a low or medium threat to hospital capacity. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, per the agency.


Of Washington’s 39 counties, nine are considered high risk; 16 are medium risk; and 14 are low risk, including King County, the state’s most populous.

That’s one of umpteen government charts designed over the past two years to help guide citizens through pandemic’s many evolutions.

But if Anderson, the parent, could ask health officials anything, she would want to know what they are recommending their own kids do. 

“There’s just so many changes these kids have had,” she said. “What I really want for them is stability.”

More on the COVID-19 pandemic

Staff reporters David Gutman and Elise Takahama contributed to this story.