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‘They’ve got to do something, I guess’: Mask mandate met with mixed response in Spokane

Coconut Cisco wears a mask while waiting for a bus at the STA Plaza on Tuesday.  (Colin Mulvany/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

About an hour after Gov. Jay Inslee announced all Washington residents will be required to wear face coverings in public effective Friday, all but a handful of people at the Spokane Transit Authority Plaza in downtown Spokane were without masks.

Coconut Cisco, 60, waited for his bus with a surgical mask pulled below his chin and said he disagreed with Inslee’s decision. Cisco said he wears a mask sometimes when required, but he believed, due to a health condition, that wearing masks was not healthy for him.

“We have this beautiful air so everyone can breathe it,” Cisco said.

The order, from Washington Health Secretary John Wiesman, includes an exception for those who have a medical condition that makes wearing a mask difficult.

Despite a countywide mask-wearing directive already in place and each STA bus lit up with LED signs that state “Masks encouraged,” Cisco sees almost no one wearing masks on the bus. If they did, he said, he wouldn’t feel any safer.

Seated on the same bench as Cisco, Travis Abel, 37, said the order was a great idea that could protect the most vulnerable people, though he was not wearing a mask.

Abel is staying in a homeless shelter now. He wears a bandana fashioned into a mask at work, and he recommends it for others because it’s reusable. But he’s seen bandanas cost as much as $13.

If mask wearing will be required, he said he would like to see more free masks available at places like homeless shelters. If free ones aren’t available, he said it would be “ridiculous” to ticket people for not wearing one.

Violating the order will technically be a misdemeanor, but Inslee said in a news conference Tuesday that the state will rely on voluntary compliance, peer pressure and “the fact that we care for our loved ones.”

“It is not our desire to have hard-working officers following people around on mask issues,” Inslee said.

But with a misdemeanor charge on the line, Abel is still concerned for others in homeless shelters.

Organizations that were once pumping masks out to meet demand have slowed. After six or seven weeks of nonstop mask-making, resulting in about 32,000 donated masks, the American Sewing Guild Inland Northwest Chapter and its affiliate shops have stopped, said Cathy Doerr, an organizer at the guild.

She said many of the guild’s people were overworked. Lately, she’s been shocked to see so few people wearing masks at grocery stores, she said.

But with the new order , she said she believes many of the shop owners who helped donate thousands of masks to the Spokane Fire Department and Spokane Police Department would “go for it,” again.

“We made 6,000 masks for Fairchild in a week,” Doerr said. “I suppose we’d have to gear everybody up to do it, but we could do it.”

Craig Johnston, waiting a few benches over from Abel, is one who will be in need of a cloth mask. Under the new statewide order, he plans to carry his cloth mask with him at all times. Despite having read that Inslee ordered Yakima County to wear masks in public, he was surprised to see the order apply everywhere.

He noticed buses recently switched the LED messages in windows from “masks required” to “masks encouraged.” Almost no one wears them on his daily routes, Johnston said.

He echoed Abel’s concerns. He’d like to see buses and businesses offering masks at their doors, though he said he knew it could be a financial burden to establishments.

But he said he agreed with Inslee’s decision. Johnston has seen COVID-19 case numbers climbing in the state.

“They’ve got to do something, I guess,” Johnston said.