Editor’s note: Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday, Feb. 28, 2022, updated Washington state’s timeline for the end of some mask requirements. The state mandates, which require residents to wear face coverings in indoor public spaces, will end on March 11.
OLYMPIA — Washington’s COVID-19 mask requirements will lift March 21 for schools, child care facilities, grocery stores, bars, gyms and a host of other indoor establishments, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
Masking will still be necessary after March 21 in health care facilities and dental offices, long-term care facilities, prisons, public transit and school buses. Any private businesses or local governments that want to continue requiring masks will be able to do so.
In a news conference Thursday, where he was joined by Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah and state schools Superintendent Chris Reykdal, Inslee laid out a broad path forward for schools and commerce as the wave of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations brought by the omicron variant recedes.
The governor urged people to stay vigilant for a few more weeks.
“It’s been quite a two years, to the closures of our businesses and our jobs, to the difficulties in our schools, to the loss of almost 11,000 of our neighbors,” Inslee said. “It has been a long, long road.”
He called the state near the end of the marathon, but not quite there, with hospitalizations still high even as they are projected to decrease further in coming weeks.
“We are very close to being able to remove the last vestiges of significant mandates that are necessary for our public health,” he said. “And we should not stop right before the tape.”
Inslee said he wants to get the state to a level of five COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people. Washington is expected to hit that level around March 21, based on projections by the state Department of Health and shared by the governor.
Meanwhile, King County says it’s not yet ready to lift its own indoor mask mandate and would continue to track the severity of the county’s COVID infections, according to a statement from Public Health – Seattle & King County. Public health officials would reassess in the coming weeks, the statement said.
In a statement after Inslee’s news conference, the Republican minority leaders in the Washington Legislature called on the governor to immediately end masking requirements.
“If someone wants to wear a mask in public, it should be by choice — not by mandate,” said Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia and Rep. J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, in prepared remarks. “Washington continues to be an outlier on this policy, and it’s causing great harm to our students’ social, emotional and academic growth.”
As Washington begins to transition away from statewide masking, DOH officials will release updated guidance for K-12 schools the week of March 6, to help schools prepare for the March 21 transition.
Schools will still have to report cases and outbreaks of COVID, and must continue to work with public health authorities in responding to them.
Staff and students with COVID-like symptoms must still quarantine away from school buildings and educators must continue providing access to testing. If a staff member or student tests positive for the virus, they must stay home and follow state and federal isolation guidelines.
Meanwhile, starting March 1, large events will no longer have to verify the vaccination status of patrons.
The mask mandate that lifts March 21 for retail businesses will also end for a host of indoor group settings, including houses of worship, recreation centers, athletic venues and libraries.
Hospital officials recently warned, however, that the current omicron wave is likely to persist for a few more weeks.
At the same time, congregate facilities in Washington are still confronting outbreaks.
Masks will still be required in Washington’s long-term care facilities, which house and provide care to about 78,000 people across the state. The number of facilities reporting at least one active case of COVID among residents or staff has been at record highs this month, peaking at 830 facilities out of 4,743, according to the Department of Social and Health Services.
The number of deaths, however, hasn’t had a significant spike, suggesting that the cases have been milder among residents and staff.
Meanwhile, Washington’s prison system, where masks are also still required for the foreseeable future, continues to see widespread outbreaks. More than 4,000 incarcerated people have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past 30 days, according to data by the state Department of Corrections.
That hasn’t stopped the broader planning for a post-omicron world.
Last week, Inslee announced the end of a statewide order requiring masks to be worn outside at gatherings of 500 or more people.
The governor also announced the end of a pause on elective surgeries although hospital systems remain stressed. Both of those changes are set to take effect Friday.
On Wednesday, King County officials announced that starting March 1, businesses such as restaurants, gyms, bars and theaters would no longer have to check the vaccination status of patrons.
While the masking orders will lift, Inslee said he will continue for now to keep the state of emergency, which has been fiercely opposed by Republicans. The governor explained that decision as necessary to make sure the state can continue to receive some federal aid dollars.
In an email, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk wrote that aid from the Federal Emergency Management Agency through its public assistance program is available only during the period an incident takes place.
“If the governor were to terminate” the emergency proclamation “he’s essentially indicating that the emergency is over and the incident period ends,” Faulk wrote. “And any costs that accrue for any emergency protective measures outside of that period no longer are eligible for FEMA disaster assistance reimbursement.”
Inslee Thursday acknowledged that his decision on masking will be considered too late by some and too early by others.
“To those who think maybe it should end earlier, all I can tell you is we lost 1,000 people in January to this disease,” Inslee said, adding later: “To those who think it’s done too early, I can tell you that we’ve demonstrated a commitment to safety and health in our state.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Paige Cornwell, Jim Brunner and Elise Takahama contributed to this story.
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