In his campaign for Seattle mayor, Bruce Harrell posed maskless for photos and mingled with dozens of attendees at an event that drew more than 200 people Friday evening. 

Photos and videos making rounds on social media feature Harrell and other political leaders, including former Gov. Gary Locke, at the banquet hall at China Harbor Restaurant in the Westlake neighborhood. About 270 people attended the two-hour dinner event, coordinated as a forum to hear from Harrell about his mayoral platform, said James Wong, one of the organizers and owner of Vibrant Cities, a real estate development company. 

Attendees were asked to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative COVID-19 test at the door, Wong said. Eventgoers also were asked to wear masks when they weren’t seated at banquet tables, eating or drinking, but videos and pictures of the event making rounds on social media show some people walking the room maskless.

“Of course we were concerned with safety, so we made everyone show proof of vaccination or a negative test to attend,” Wong said. “We were very careful about safety when putting this event together.”

Statewide, masks are required in public indoor spaces — regardless of vaccination status — including restaurants, with the exception of when someone is actively eating or drinking. 

Reached by phone briefly Sunday morning, Harrell said he wasn’t available to speak about the event, later sending a statement by email saying he works hard to set an example for mask wearing.

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“Even though I only removed my mask for dining and brief intervals for photographs with friends and community leaders, I understand that people in public life will and should be held to high standards,” Harrell’s statement reads.

Burien Mayor Jimmy Matta, who also attended the event Friday, said the photos circulating online captured only the moments political leaders shed masks to pose for photographs. Most attendees followed mask guidelines, Matta said. 

“China Harbor is big enough where people can be separated, but at the same time we were cautious about peoples’ safety,” Matta said. 

Hamdi Mohamed, candidate for Port of Seattle Commission, also was in attendance, posing for photos with a large group. None wore masks. 

“I had my mask in my hand at all times and only removed it to eat and for a couple of community pictures,” Mohamed wrote in a text message.

China Harbor — a shiny, black building that sits on the west side of Lake Union — is known for hosting political fundraisers and mega-events at its banquet hall. The venue can hold more than 400 people, but has limited crowd size during the pandemic, said Matta, who held an event at the hall last month. The restaurant’s owner, Thomson Zhao, did not return a call seeking comment.

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Locke, the former governor and current interim president of Bellevue College, also spoke at the event Friday. He was pictured posing with guests while holding his mask in his hand. At least one picture on Facebook shows him standing and talking with a small group without a mask.

Locke said he mostly wore his mask during the event, except when he was asked to pose for pictures or between bites of his dinner. He provided a Seattle Times reporter with pictures of himself that evening in a mask, talking to guests or posing with groups. 

“You do your very, very best,” said Locke, who is 71 and considered at high risk of coronavirus infection. “Nobody is perfect. I don’t profess to be perfect. I tried to wear my mask the entire time.”

The issue of mask-wearing at the fundraiser became quick fodder for Harrell’s opponent in the mayoral race, M. Lorena González: In the early minutes of a forum hosted by the Queen Anne Community Council on Sunday afternoon, González criticized Harrell’s campaign for pushing for a change in moderator. Seattle journalist Erica C. Barnett, who had shared pictures of the Friday event on Twitter and described it as a “giant, unmasked fundraiser,” tweeted that she was replaced as moderator for the Queen Anne event after Harrell threatened to withdraw.

“It’s my understanding this journalist was one of the first to report on my opponent’s decision to host a very large maskless indoor fundraiser in violation of King County’s public health mandate,” González said at the Queen Anne Community Council forum. “… Leadership in my mind means that you cannot play by your own rules when it comes to public health, especially when the city is in a public health crisis.”

Harrell replied that the event was not hosted by his campaign and added that he complied with the restaurant’s rules. 

“I was invited to a community event that I’ve participated in, certainly took pictures and ate food and you’re allowed to take your mask off,” he said. “So, I don’t know what that’s about.” He added that he had “no discussions” with Barnett but “the question was posed, why was she the person to host us.”

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