Restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms in King County will no longer be required to check the vaccination status of their patrons beginning March 1, officials announced Wednesday, as the county begins to unwind pandemic policies that have been in place for months.
From March 1, businesses will be free to impose their own vaccination requirements if they choose, but the countywide requirement will disappear. Since last fall, indoor eateries and cultural and recreational spaces have been required to verify their customers’ vaccination status or a negative coronavirus test as a condition for entry.
The policy has also applied to outdoor events with more than 500 people, like concerts and sporting events.
“Our public health experts believe that now is the appropriate time to lift vaccine verification, based on high rates of vaccine coverage and the decrease in new cases and hospitalizations across the county,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said Wednesday. “We are moving in the right direction, and can continue taking additional steps toward recovery.”
Masks are still required statewide in all indoor public places, regardless of vaccination status. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said he expects to announce this week when the statewide mask mandate for schools and businesses will end. Inslee has a news conference scheduled for Thursday.
The vaccine-check policy was originally slated to be reevaluated by March 16 — six months after it was announced — but is being scrapped a couple of weeks ahead of schedule.
Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also announced that they will begin gradually calling back to the office the thousands of county and city employees who have been working remotely for nearly two years. King County has an estimated 7,000 employees who have been working remotely, and Seattle has about 5,000.
The county’s, and much of the nation’s, coronavirus transmission rates have fallen sharply in the last few weeks, as December’s omicron variant-fueled surge has receded.
In King County, average daily cases have fallen by more than 82% since peaking in early January, according to county data. Hospitalizations have fallen by more than 62%.
Among businesses — where hosts, bouncers, ticket checkers and ushers have been taking at least cursory glances at the vaccine cards, apps and phones of thousands of patrons, day in and day out — reaction was mixed.
Rich Fox, an operating owner at Weimann Maclise, said his seven bars and restaurants in King County, including Rhein Haus on Capitol Hill, will likely stop checking customers’ vaccination status at the door come March.
But no final decision will be made until he huddles with his general managers and chefs to see if there are any objections or safety concerns, Fox said.
“My initial thought is because of the high vaccination rate in King County and because we have available outdoor seating and because our restaurants are large, we are not feeling like we have to police this anymore,” Fox said.
Josh Henderson, the owner of two Burbs Burgers branches in Seattle, has been one of the city’s most outspoken critics of the vaccination mandate.
“This is long overdue,” Henderson said of the announcement. “This was ridiculous from the start to check vaccination cards. We will gladly not check vax cards, just as before. We welcome everyone.”
Constantine said the county supports businesses who will continue to do vaccine checks.
“A business has a right to require that people coming in are vaccinated just as they have a right to require that they wear shoes and a shirt, and folks are not within their rights to try to intimidate that business,” he said.
James Lim, owner of Watson’s Counter in Ballard, said customers have appreciated his staff’s thoroughness in checking vaccinations and they will continue to do so.
“We’ve had a lot of regulars, people who have been faithful to us; it’s only fair to be faithful to them,” Lim said. “We check vaccinations thoroughly. We check dates and a significant amount of people have expressed to us through social media and in person that they appreciate that.”
Jurisdictions across the country with strict COVID-19 prevention policies in place have begun rolling them back in recent weeks.
Washington, D.C., recently dropped its vaccine requirement for indoor dining. New York state last week stopped requiring indoor businesses to mandate either masks or vaccinations. New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware have all recently eased school mask mandates.
“We announced the vaccination-verification policy in anticipation of a fall and winter surge in cases,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “The intent was to reduce COVID-19 transmission in high-risk indoor settings and thereby reduce the burden on our hospitals, while providing time for more people to get fully vaccinated.”
A little over a month ago, hospitals across the state had more than 800 workers isolating and quarantining and unable to work, according to the Washington State Hospital Association. As of early last week, that number had dropped to about 100.
Still, COVID rates remain at or above the levels they were at when the vaccine-verification policy was announced at the peak of the delta variant wave in September.
The difference, Duchin said, is in the direction the numbers are headed.
“Things are improving,” he said. “At the time we were very concerned that things were on the uptick and worsening.”
Duchin said that since the vaccine verification policy was announced, more than 250,000 King County residents have gotten vaccinated. More than 87% of King County residents 12 and older are fully vaccinated, according to the county, and more than 95% in that age group have had at least one shot. More than 79% of county residents who are eligible are fully vaccinated.
And, Duchin said, the omicron surge, which led to the highest known infection levels of the pandemic, has likely boosted some level of community immunity, at least for the short term.
And while officials characterized the policy change as good news, they sought to convey the nuance of an ongoing pandemic and a virus that has upended expectations before.
Duchin urged continued COVID precautions, including high-quality masks, improvements in indoor air ventilation and filtration and limits on time spent in crowded indoor spaces. He urged vaccinations, including booster shots for people who haven’t had one. Vaccinations are free and health insurance is not required.
King County data shows that since the omicron surge began, residents who are unvaccinated are 27 times more likely to be hospitalized with COVID, and 34 times more likely to die from it than those who are fully vaccinated and boosted.
Seattle Times staff writer Jackie Varriano contributed to this report.
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