OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday announced a new statewide requirement for masks to be worn at large outdoor gatherings as Washington rides the crest of its fifth and largest wave of COVID-19.
Fueled by the more contagious delta variant, hospitals are seeing record-levels of coronavirus patients, and large outbreaks are being traced to outdoor music festivals and county fairs.
Starting on Monday, the state’s current requirement for indoor facial coverings in public spaces will be expanded to include outdoor events with 500 or more attendees, according to the governor’s office. That mandate will apply to vaccinated and unvaccinated people.
In a news conference where he was joined by state Department of Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah, Inslee said the continuing surge is driven in no small part by residents who won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine.
“The fact is, when you make a decision to not be vaccinated, it is not just about your health, it is about the health of everyone around you,” said Inslee. “So we need more people to think a little less about ‘me’ and a little more about ‘we.'”
The governor recounted the grim statistics that are largely impacting Washington’s unvaccinated.
The daily coronavirus statistics being released Thursday included more than 4,200 new cases, Inslee said, and 252 newly hospitalized state residents who have the virus. Meanwhile, the state reported 59 more deaths.
“Almost all of them were preventable deaths,” said the governor.
As of Sept. 7, nearly 74% of state residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of a vaccine and 67% of those in that age category are fully vaccinated, according to DOH. But those numbers obscure a broad disparity between counties, with some parts of Washington having much lower rates of vaccination.
The state now has a record level of hospitalizations for COVID-19 patients for the whole pandemic, said the governor.
In addition, health officials have pinpointed at least five “superspreader events” at large outdoor gatherings in recent weeks, according to Shah.
According to DOH, those five events were: the Bass Canyon music festival and Watershed Festival at the Gorge Amphitheatre; the Omak Stampede; the Northwest Washington Fair; and the Grant County Fair.
As with many of Inslee’s orders and mandates related to the pandemic, some Republicans criticized Thursday’s action.
In a statement, Washington State Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich called Inslee’s outdoors mask requirement “another arbitrary and unilateral decision.”
“These decisions should be made through a representative process and include the State Legislature but Inslee has continuously avoided this through his abuse of the Emergency Powers Act and Democrat Legislators unwillingness to represent their constituents,” Heimlich added in prepared remarks.
Thursday’s order comes after King County’s health department last week announced a similar measure, which took effect Tuesday. Meanwhile, Tacoma-Pierce County health officials ordered a mask requirement for the Washington State Fair in Puyallup, which runs through Sept. 26.
With those county-level mandates in place, the Gorge Amphitheatre is the largest music venue in the state impacted by Inslee’s new order. The 27,500-capacity venue in Eastern Washington has a handful of shows left in its abbreviated summer season, during which masking has been scarce among fans and staff. But only a Sept. 18 Kiss concert and dance music festival Beyond Wonderland (Oct. 1-2) will be subject to the new guidelines.
Live Nation, which controls the Gorge, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The new guidance from state and county officials comes late in the summer concert season and until recently, decisions around COVID-19 safety protocol, such as vaccination requirements, have largely been left to the artists.
The order will also apply to events like the Spokane County Interstate Fair, which runs from Friday through Sept. 19.
Officials had already been encouraging people to bring masks to the event and are also planning to make them available, said Erin Gurtel, director of the county’s Fair & Expo Center.
With the new order taking effect, “We’ll just give them a gentle reminder,” Gurtel said Thursday.
Washington State University announced earlier this week that masks would be required to attend its games at Martin Stadium on the Pullman campus, according to spokesperson David Wasson.
Starting in October, attendees aged 12 and older will also have to show a negative coronavirus test within the past 72 hours or proof of vaccination to gain entry into the stadium, Wasson wrote in an email.
The outdoor mask requirement adds to emergency orders Inslee announced last month as a summer wave of cases and hospitalizations built up.
The governor in August brought back a statewide mask requirement and mandates for state workers, school employees and most health care workers to get vaccinated or lose their jobs.
Seattle Times music writer Michael Rietmulder contributed to this report.