Washington indoor mask mandate will lift March 21 with some exceptions
Following in the path of multiple other states, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that he will largely lift the state’s indoor mask mandate, in place since last August, on Monday, March 21.
"We have good news today, we are confident that we are succeeding and experiencing a significant decline in omicron cases," Inslee declared at the opening of his news conference.
The highly-anticipated announcement comes as COVID-19 case counts plummet from their peak in January.
Previously, Inslee had announced the state’s mask requirement for large outdoor events would expire on February 18.
Inslee, a Democrat, also declared Thursday that vaccine verification will no longer be required starting March 1 for large indoor and outdoor events. That order had been in place since last October.
Once the mask mandate lifts, the state will no longer require facial coverings in schools, childcare centers, restaurants and bars, churches, gyms and retail establishments like grocery stores.
However, local governments and school districts will retain the authority to enact their own mask mandates, and private businesses will still have the right to require customers to wear masks.
The lifting of the mandate will not apply to healthcare and medical facilities, long-term care settings and jails and prisons. Facial coverings will also still be required on public transit and school buses due to a federal requirement that remains in place.
In a statement prior to Inslee’s announcement, Senate Republican leader John Braun said a delay until March is unnecessary. “I’m not sure why this can’t be effective immediately. Why make people wait any longer,” Braun said.
On Thursday, New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, ended her state’s mask mandate effective immediately.
Inslee’s announcement follows similar moves by governors in several other states this month. According to tracking by The New York Times, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all have or will soon lift or modify their mask mandates.
Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also recently announced an end to her state’s indoor mask requirement by March 31. In Virginia, a new law signed Wednesday will make masks optional in public schools.
On Wednesday, King County — Washington’s most populous county — announced that on March 1 it will end its requirement that businesses like restaurants, bars and gyms require patrons to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test. After that, businesses will be free to choose to continue the policy or abandon it.
Inslee’s office on Thursday also emphasized that restaurants and other businesses that wish to continue requiring proof of vaccine can do so.
In preparation for the lifting of the mask requirement at schools, the Department of Health plans to issue fresh guidance to schools to help them make the transition. That will include converting the current requirements about distancing, ventilation and sanitation into recommendations.
Schools will still have to report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks and cooperate with public health efforts like contact tracing.
Until March 21, current school requirements — including masking rules — will remain in effect.
Masking requirements for employees at work will also lift on March 21, but Inslee’s office emphasized that a new state law requires employers to allow workers the option to continue to wear masks during a public health emergency.
Inslee and then-Secretary of Health John Wiesman first announced a statewide mask mandate in June 2020, just three months into the pandemic, amid rising case counts.
In May 2021, that requirement was largely lifted for people who were fully vaccinated. But in August, as the delta variant surge took hold, the governor and current Sec. of Health Umair Shah re-imposed the mask mandate even on vaccinated individuals.
Then, in September of that year, the face covering requirement was amended to include crowded outdoor events of 500 or more people.
Inslee’s announcement Thursday comes as COVID-19 case counts are quickly falling from their all-time high in January. At the peak, Washington was experiencing a rolling seven-day average of 19,000 cases, according to the state’s dashboard. As of February 3, the most recent date for which the state has complete data, that had dropped to about 7,000 cases, a 63 percent reduction.
More recent data compiled by The New York Times show an even more dramatic decline that puts case counts back to where they were at the peak of the delta variant surge last summer.
COVID hospitalizations have also started to drop.
The Department of Health estimates that about 73 percent of Washington’s eligible population of 5 and up is fully vaccinated.