The new sign placed on the sidewalk outside the Seattle Aquarium read: “Masks encouraged.” What the sign also meant was: Masks not required.
About one-third of the people streaming into the aquarium went maskless Saturday morning as Washington state lifted its long-running COVID-19 mask mandate for most indoor spaces, including restaurants, bars, gyms, supermarkets and schools.
The rest of the aquarium visitors wore masks despite the policy change from Gov. Jay Inslee, with the crowd illustrating a range of views about the next phase of the pandemic.
Saturday marked a major shift, because Washingtonians have for the better part of two years been subject to mask mandates, with a brief break last summer for vaccinated people. As of Thursday, King County’s coronavirus case rate for the prior seven days was 46 per 100,000 people.
Businesses can still, on their own, require masks. An announcement this past week that masks would be optional in Seattle Public Schools starting Monday was met with the threat of a walkout by some students and with pushback from some parents and teachers.
At the aquarium, Anthony Van Cura beamed as he led his kids past a tidal touch tank with starfish and sea anemones. He appreciates why some people want to keep wearing masks, but he called Saturday’s change “a relief for people who don’t want to, and are vaccinated, and are being safe also.”
“Seeing the smiles on people’s faces creates a sense of humanness,” said the 29-year-old from Lacey. “That’s what I like.”
Most visitors took a more cautious approach. On a trip from Portland, Alejandra Ramirez wore a mask, as did her husband and stepdaughter.
“We’re still not really confident about indoor places,” she said.
Waiting for a puppet show, Rose Peng and her 3-year-old daughter, Anna, of Seattle, also kept their mouths and noses covered. COVID vaccinations aren’t yet available for kids under 5.
Though Peng, 38, felt comfortable with the mixed crowd, “We prefer to continue wearing masks,” she said. “As long as we’re masked, we feel safe.”
The aquarium’s employees wore masks Saturday, and spokesperson Tim Kuniholm called the statewide change “a little bit scary.” Still, employee Nicole Killebrew said she and her co-workers are excited to spend less time scanning for violators and more time teaching about marine creatures.
“It’s going to be nice not to have to enforce the mandate,” Killebrew said. “We were happy to support it and felt it was necessary … but this should allow us to focus on the aspects of our work that we really love.”
Some groups included masked and unmasked visitors, like tourist Phylis Vissing, of Lexington, Kentucky, who wore a mask to the aquarium, and her husband, Mark Vissing, who didn’t. Both are 71.
“This environment is open enough that I’m OK,” Mark Vissing said.
Later Saturday, in the Seattle Center Armory, Danielle Butz performed an Irish jig without a mask for the first time in a long time in public. She was there with a dance group for the annual Irish Festival Seattle, where many people wore masks and many didn’t as they milled past craft booths.
“It feels really good to be able to dance and breathe at the same time,” said Butz, 70, from Burien, after a session on stage backed up by a fiddle and a flute.
“Everybody we dance with is vaccinated, boosted and follow the rules. We’re more worried about forgetting the steps,” she added.
Tom Roach, of Seattle, on other hand, wore green to the festival — and a mask. He also masked up at his gym Saturday, because he wants to see how the virus behaves over the next few weeks. He monitors case rates.
“I’m really ready for this thing to get over,” said Roach, 72, whose plan to travel the world after retiring two years ago has been delayed by COVID. “But I’m not 100% sure it’s over … If I was 25, I probably wouldn’t have a mask on, but I’m not 25.”
Esperanza Morales is younger, and she went maskless in the Armory as she sipped a beer. But even at 28, Morales is taking precautions. She had a mask in her pocket, ready to use in less cavernous venues.
“I do always have my mask on hand,” she said.
Most shoppers at the Metropolitan Market near Seattle Center wore masks. But Morgan French went without and it felt great, she said.
“I’ve traveled a little bit and most places were already done,” said French, 37, mentioning Idaho and Arizona.
Another shopper, Terry Kelly, said he joined friends at a karaoke bar around midnight Friday as they celebrated the end of the mandate by whipping off their masks and twirling them in the air. But Kelly, 39, left almost right away, and he wore a mask to the supermarket Saturday.
“There are people who are still vulnerable, especially people with disabilities,” he said, explaining why he wore a mask while buying groceries. “I’m standing in solidarity with them.”
Heading to the store, Kelly expected that wearing a mask would make him “the oddball out.” Instead, he said, “One lady walked past me and she was like, ‘Thank you.’”