King County is directing people to wear cloth face coverings in certain settings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus as more businesses reopen and activities resume, officials said May 11.

The policy takes effect May 18, and the county won’t enforce it with tickets or arrests. Instead, officials will rely on voluntary compliance in Seattle and throughout the county, they said.

The new directive by Jeff Duchin, the county’s public health officer, says people should cover their noses and mouths in indoor public spaces, such as supermarkets, and in outdoor public spaces, such as farmers markets, where social distancing guidelines are difficult to follow.

County Executive Dow Constantine and Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan joined Duchin for a virtual news conference to publicize the policy, which will stay in effect as long as the health officer deems necessary.

“It is critical we continue to slow the rate of transmission even as we increase economic activities, so that our recovery can be a one-way trip,” Constantine said, warning a second surge in cases could lead to another widespread shutdown.

“Probably 95% of the people in Seattle and King County have not yet been exposed,” Durkan added, lending her support to the directive.

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There won’t be penalties for people who don’t wear face coverings, and law enforcement won’t be involved, Duchin said.

Some people can’t wear face coverings for medical reasons. Some also may worry about being subjected to racial profiling and biased treatment while wearing masks, Constantine said. Some Black men, in particular, have raised that concern.

The policy won’t apply to deaf and hard-of-hearing people who rely on facial and mouth movements to communicate.

Masks shouldn’t be worn by children under 2 and should be worn by children between 2 and 12 only with supervision by adults, according to Public Health – Seattle & King County.

“We are strongly encouraging King County residents to wear masks” in crowded public spaces, Duchin said when asked whether the directive amounted to a requirement.

“Like most of our public health interventions, we need most people to comply with this, and the more the better,” he added later. “However, it’s not essential that every one of us comply for this to work, so if there are a few who can’t or don’t, this will still be an effective intervention if most of us do.”

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In addition to supermarkets and farmers markets, the county’s directive applies to pharmacies, convenience stores, pet-supply stores, auto-supply stores, hardware and home-improvement stores, garden stores, office-supply stores, home-appliance stores, carry-out restaurants, cannabis shops, tobacco and vape shops.

The policy will apply in taxis and rideshare vehicles and aboard public transportation, including buses and light rail.

King County Metro bus passengers will be “required” to wear face coverings, but riders without them won’t actually be turned away, Metro said. Instead, they’ll hear recorded reminders and security officers will “offer guidance.” Sound Transit, which provides service across three counties, will add new signage urging riders to wear face coverings, but will not enforce the directive, a spokesman said.

The directive will apply in crowded parks (Seattle deployed about 70 “park ambassadors” over Mother’s Day weekend to break up picnics and parties). But it won’t apply to outdoor exercise done at least 6 feet away from non-household members. It also won’t apply to people in cars alone or with household members.

Social-distancing practices established weeks ago have allowed King County to make “real progress” in dealing with the pandemic, but the new coronavirus has continued to spread, and people have continued to get sick with COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, the health officer said.

As of 11:59 p.m. Saturday, May 16, the state health department has confirmed 18,433 cases, including 1,001 deaths. Of those, 7,472 cases and 527 deaths have been in King County, according to state tallies.

More than 285,200 tests for the virus have been conducted across Washington, with 6.5% coming back positive.

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Now that some restrictions are being relaxed, people are going to be around each other more, and they may not know they have the virus, Duchin said. The virus can be spread by small droplets released when people cough, sneeze or speak, so face coverings can help reduce transmission by those without symptoms, he said.

“I’d much rather see people lock down their mouths and noses than lock down their neighborhoods,” Duchin said.

As defined by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), cloth face coverings include cloth face masks, scarves and bandanas, and any homemade face covering made from cotton fabric. Members of the public shouldn’t be buying medical-grade or surgical masks because health care providers need those, according to Public Health.

Masks should cover the mouth and nose and should be secured around the face, according to the CDC. They should be washed after each use, at least daily.

(Jennifer Luxton / The Seattle Times)
How to properly wear a face mask

King County is distributing 115,000 face coverings and masks through community organizations, and Seattle is distributing an additional 45,500, partly through community organizations that serve immigrants and refugees, older adults and homeless people, Constantine and Durkan said May 11.

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Many people in King County already are wearing cloth face coverings while out and about. The state health department in early April recommended that people wear them while in public and unable to stay 6 feet away from other people. The CDC had issued a similar recommendation, encouraging people to cover their faces in settings such as supermarkets and pharmacies.

Metro last month began strongly urging transit riders to wear face coverings, and some stores, such as those in the Costco chain, have in recent weeks been requiring most shoppers to wear face coverings.

Businesses can bar customers without face coverings from entering, as long as they don’t discriminate in other ways that are illegal, Durkan noted.

Some jurisdictions outside Washington have been quicker to adopt mandatory policies. For example, six counties in California’s Bay Area, including San Francisco, have since mid-April required adults to wear face coverings when shopping, riding transit, seeking health care and working in essential jobs that involve interactions with the public. In Connecticut, residents were ordered last month to use face coverings while in public and unable to follow social-distancing guidelines.

Seattle Times reporters Michelle Baruchman and Heidi Groover contributed to this story.