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News >  Spokane

Spokane County health officer makes masks mandatory in public – but rule won’t be enforced

UPDATED: Wed., May 20, 2020

As officials press to ease restrictions on businesses and reopen parts of the Spokane County economy, they are urging residents to wear masks.

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz issued a directive on Wednesday that says residents must wear face coverings at indoor or confined public settings when they will be within 6 feet of another person with whom they don’t live.

The directive takes effect immediately.

Lutz said it is especially important for residents to wear face coverings at retail establishments and restaurants, which will be allowed to seat customers when the county enters Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan.

The directive applies to all restaurants, public transportation and retail stores, including hardware stores, grocery stores and pharmacies.

Lutz asked residents to wear cloth face coverings instead of medical-grade masks, which should be saved for health care workers, he said.

The directive is not enforceable, and no one will be arrested or fined for not following it.

“There’s no enforcement,” Lutz said. “There won’t be mask police going out there.”

But Lutz said he hopes community members will do their part to keep one another safe and wear masks anyway.

“This protects you from me, and likewise you wearing a mask protects me from you. It’s something we can do collectively together to protect everyone,” Lutz said.

COVID-19 spreads primarily from person-to-person contact via respiratory droplets, which people produce through coughing, sneezing or even speaking. A mask protects the wearer from spreading those droplets to others.

The respiratory virus can spread easily, including in people who are not experiencing typical symptoms of COVID-19. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that people not experiencing symptoms, who are presymptomatic or asymptomatic, can spread the virus and lead to devastating outbreaks like the one at Life Care Kirkland in King County.

COVID-19 is highly contagious. In Skagit County, one person experiencing symptoms of the virus spread it to 53 of 61 people attending a choir practice. Two of them eventually died.

Community-wide masking can help reduce the spread of the virus, and masking is most effective when compliance is high, recent research shows.

The Spokane Regional Health District plans to submit an application to the state Department of Health this week to move to Phase 2 of reopening.

In Phase 2, many businesses, including retail stores, restaurants, salons, barbershops and real estate, can operate under certain guidelines. But most of those businesses will look different, with employees wearing masks and gloves and tables spaced apart to allow for social distancing. The specifics vary depending on the industry.

Not everything will be back to normal, however. Bars, for instance, still are not allowed to open until Phase 3. And while gatherings are allowed in Phase 2, they are not allowed in groups of more than five people who don’t live together.

Entering Phase 2 will mean more transmission of COVID-19 in the community, and Lutz said he expects to see case numbers increase as the county progresses.

“I think it’s an expectation, and that’s why as you look at the deliberate phased approach,” Lutz said. The governor’s “emphasis has been to make sure we have all the guard rails in place, and that we will have the ability to do the case and contact investigations.”

The health district is unable to provide face coverings to the community. Businesses and trade groups are actively working to ensure their employees have the necessary protection to reopen.

The CDC has guidelines for creating masks at home.

The countywide masking directive does not apply to babies younger than 2 or kids under the age of 12 without adult supervision. Additionally, individuals who would have difficulty breathing or taking off their mask due to underlying health conditions do not have to wear them.

There is no end date listed on Lutz’s masking directive. He said he anticipates it being in effect as long as physical distancing recommendations continue to be in place.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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