Saying that last week’s federal pronouncement that vaccinated people need not mask up indoors was poorly planned and “counterproductive,” the King County health officer on Thursday issued a new directive asking residents to continue covering up.
Vaccinated or not, most everyone should wear a mask when indoors and in a public space, said Dr. Jeff Duchin, of Public Health – Seattle & King County, during a Thursday news media briefing.
“Bear with us a little bit longer” to keep children and people with weakened immune systems safe while transmission remains high, Duchin implored. He said the day is not far off when masking would merely be a “personal choice.”
The directive released Thursday, which urges voluntary compliance, says those 5 and older should wear a mask in indoor public spaces unless an establishment uses a “state-approved method” to assure people allowed in are fully vaccinated. It encourages businesses to continue masking policies or implement a system to review vaccination cards or other proof, as outlined in the state’s COVID-19 spectator guidelines, before allowing entry.
The directive applies to grocers, retailers, restaurants and bars and will remain in place until at least 70% of the county’s population 16 years and older are fully vaccinated. It does not apply to workplaces without public entry.
The local directive is more restrictive than the federal guidance the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced last week, which eased mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop masking up outdoors in crowds and in many indoor settings, though it calls for masks in crowded spaces such as buses, planes, hospitals, prisons and homeless shelters.
Gov. Jay Inslee last week said Washington state would follow the new CDC masking guidelines. Washington’s health secretary, Dr. Umair Shah, earlier this week said people should “respect the rules of the room you’re in” for masking.
Face coverings are one of the most prominent symbols of the pandemic. Since the pandemic began, scientific evidence has grown stronger that masks reduce transmission in communities with widespread adoption and are among the best mitigation tools short of vaccine.
The risk of coronavirus infection is many multiples higher indoors than outside.
Duchin made the case that local circumstances require masking for a few more weeks, at least.
While transmission is falling, it remains relatively high.
“We have just recently turned the corner on a fourth wave of infection,” Duchin said. “Right now, you have significant likelihood of bumping into someone with COVID-19 based on transmission rates in our community.”
Vaccination rates aren’t high in some groups, including young adults, residents of South King County and members of the Black and Hispanic communities, he added.
Some 57% of King County residents 16 and older were fully vaccinated on Thursday, according to the directive.
“The most reliable way to ensure everyone is safe is for everyone to wear a face mask for a few more weeks until we get vaccination rates higher and disease rates drop,” Duchin said, noting that children ages 12-15 became eligible for vaccination only recently.
Duchin said if masks are not expected of everyone, there is not a practical way to know who is vaccinated and who is not in public spaces, potentially putting children and those with weakened immune systems at risk.
“There are tens of thousands of people in King County who have some form of immunosuppression,” Duchin said. “Many of these people remain vulnerable even if they are vaccinated.”
King County’s directive resembles Oregon’s requirements on masking.
The Oregon Health Authority earlier this week revised its guidance on masks to give store owners the option to allow fully vaccinated customers to come inside without face coverings so long as they display proof of that status.
But at least early on, many business owners are wary of instituting door checks, and continue to require mask coverings for entry.
Kaie Wellman, co-owner of Portland’s Providore Fine Foods, said in a Thursday interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting that such policing would take an “extraordinary” toll on staff, and she did not want to put them in that role.
One business in Oregon that did offer to let people go maskless if they documented their vaccination status – Enchanted Forest, a theme park south of Salem – was hit with an ugly backlash that prompted the owners to postpone a long-delayed reopening planned for this weekend.
“Unfortunately, recent comments and threats have made clear that our community is not in agreement as to how we interact in public places with regard to mask requirements for those who are vaccinated versus those who are not vaccinated,” said a statement from the Enchanted Forest.
Seattle Times reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this report.