OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is committed to his March 21 date for lifting COVID-19 mask restrictions, according to his office, as federal officials Friday loosened their own masking guidelines.

In a news conference earlier this month, the governor announced statewide mask requirements would lift on March 21 for schools, child care facilities, grocery stores, gyms, bars and other indoor establishments. On Friday, King County’s top health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin, also announced he would lift his mask mandate on that day as long as local COVID-19 trends hold or improve.

In emails Friday, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote that “COVID trends are declining but still remain very high relative to other waves over the pandemic.”

“Our state’s 7-day average for cases, hospitalizations and deaths are roughly equal to what they were at the peak of the Delta surge,” Faulk continued. “We remain committed to March 21 lifting of most mask requirements.”

After Inslee’s office reviews the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “there will be a broader discussion with the governor’s office and the Department of Health about its implications for our state,” Faulk wrote.

Throughout the rest of the country, however, masking guidelines were eased Friday afternoon when President Joe Biden’s administration and the CDC announced most Americans can take a break from wearing masks inside.


The updated CDC guidance shifts away from looking at COVID-19 case counts to a more holistic view of risk from the coronavirus to a community. Under older guidelines, masks were recommended for people in communities where there was substantial or high transmission — which was roughly 95% of U.S. counties.

With immunity rising, from both vaccination and infection, the overall risk of severe disease is generally lower, according to the CDC.

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 the coronavirus is posing a low or medium threat to hospitals. Those are the people who can stop wearing masks, the agency said.

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

The agency is still advising that people, including schoolchildren, wear masks where the risk of COVID-19 is high. That’s the situation in about 37% of U.S. counties, where about 28% of Americans reside.

“Anybody is certainly welcome to wear a mask at any time if they feel safer wearing a mask,” CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said in a news briefing. “We want to make sure our hospitals are OK and people are not coming in with severe disease.”


The CDC’s new metrics will still consider caseloads but also take into account hospitalizations and local hospital capacity, which have markedly improved during the emergence of the omicron variant.

Omicron is highly transmissible, but indications are that it is less severe than earlier variants, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated and boosted. Under the new guidelines, the vast majority of Americans will no longer live in areas where indoor masking in public is recommended, based on current data.

In setting his date to lift Washington’s statewide mask requirements, Inslee said he was seeking a level of five hospitalizations due to COVID-19 per 100,000 people. Projections showed Washington would meet that threshold around March 21, he said.

As of Feb. 16, Washington’s seven-day average of COVID-19 hospital admissions stood at around 14 people per 100,000, according to state Department of Health data.

King County is averaging around 400 new infections per day — slightly higher than, but much closer to, pre-omicron levels in mid-December. The county is also reporting about 10 daily hospitalizations and six deaths per day.

On Friday, Duchin added that even though King County is now considered to be at a “low COVID-19 community level” according to the CDC’s new classifications, it “does not mean COVID is over.”


Residents should still continue to stay up to date on vaccinations and boosters, improve indoor air quality through ventilation and filtration and — especially for those at high risk of severe illness — mask when in crowded and poorly ventilated indoor spaces, he added.

In an interview Friday morning, Washington Department of Corrections Secretary Cheryl Strange said she supports the governor’s March 21 deadline. Prison officials have contended with multiple COVID-19 outbreaks amid the omicron variant’s surge, though cases are beginning to decline.

Congregate facilities like Washington’s prisons “have additional challenges” in preventing the spread of COVID, said Strange, referring to the aging buildings and HVAC systems and concerns about airflow and open-barred cells.

“So we will be following the governor’s directive … and I think it is the right thing to do.”

Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.