Gov. Jay Inslee said Saturday he would order Yakima County residents to wear masks while shopping or in other public places, a move that reflects what he termed an “existential threat” posed by soaring case counts of the virus there.

Inslee said the proclamation will be issued in the next several days and be a legal requirement that will order businesses not to sell to customers who don’t wear face coverings.

 “Essentially this means, no masks no services. No masks, no goods,” Inslee said. “This is the next step. Frankly, it is not necessarily the last step to mitigate measures in Yakima County … we are going to be swamped with a tidal wave of COVID-19 if we do not act now.”

Yakima this spring has emerged as one of the coronavirus hot spots in the United States. There were early outbreaks in nursing homes as well as in fruit- and meat-processing plants, helping to fuel what is now a much broader outbreak. County hospitals are overwhelmed, and because of critical staffing shortages are transporting COVID-19 patients to Western Washington facilities.

“While I hear some voices saying that this is overblown, the facts are otherwise,” Inslee said.

In Yakima County, as in King County, local officials have already directed the public to wear masks. But there are no penalties. Inslee said his upcoming rule can be enforced.

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In the past week, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a similar directive requiring face coverings in public spaces for seven counties.

The total positive case count in Yakima County, as of Friday, was 6,270. The county has seen 118 deaths from the virus, according to the Yakima Health District.

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Yakima County’s 250,000 residents make up less than 4% of the state’s population. Yet, its COVID-19 case count represents more than 20% of the state’s cases, and county residents hospitalized with the virus account for 22% of such cases.

Daily case counts have escalated in the county in recent weeks, and Inslee, in announcing the measure, spoke of an “imminent explosion” of the virus. He noted it could double in the next two weeks unless dramatic actions were taken. The spread of the virus through the county is reflected in COVID-19 test results. Inslee said 26% of these tests came back positive, far above the statewide average of 6%.

Inslee, who previously lived in Yakima County, said all three of his sons were born there, and “the tragedy unfolding in Yakima is personal to me.”

Inslee said he is considering a similar order for other counties, but did not say which ones.

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