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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington’s mask mandate will end March 21, Inslee says

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee puts on a mask after speaking at a news conference Aug. 18, 2021, at the Capitol in Olympia.  (Associated Press)

OLYMPIA – Washington’s indoor mask mandate will end March 21.

As COVID-19 case rates continue to fall, Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Thursday in just more than a month, masks will no longer be required in places like schools, restaurants, gyms or grocery stores.

Masks still will be required in health care facilities, long-term care settings, public transit and correctional facilities.

“We think this is both good for our health and our education of our children and the total reopening of our economy,” Inslee told reporters.

The governor also announced that beginning March 1, vaccine verification for large events will no longer be required. The vaccine requirement for large events has been in effect since Nov. 15.

Inslee reinstated a mask mandate for all indoor spaces in August as the delta variant brought case spikes and overwhelmed hospitals. But as the country comes off its omicron variant peak and cases and hospitalizations continue to decrease, many Democratic governors have announced end dates for their mask mandates.

As of Thursday, case rates and hospitalizations still remained higher than at any period previous to the omicron surge.

Inslee said he is choosing March 21 as the end date because projections show that is when daily hospital admissions should be low enough to leave health officials comfortable ending the mandate.

“This has been a long, long journey,” Inslee said. “I know people want to say it’s totally over today. That would not be consistent with where the science is right now.”

Spokane Regional Health District’s Health Officer Dr. Frank Velázquez said in a statement he appreciated Inslee taking time for hospitals to recover from the high rates happening now.

“There is optimism and confidence in the declining rates, and this gives Spokane County time to be in a safer place to show flexibility with public health measures,” Velázquez said.

Updated school guidance

School officials, including Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and a number of Eastern Washington superintendents, have been pushing for an end to the mask mandate. School leaders in Eastern Washington say there is an urgent need to address students’ social and emotional well-being.

The Department of Health also will update guidance for K-12 schools during the week of March 7, according to Inslee’s office. The new guidance, which will include the end of the mask mandate, will go into effect March 21.

Schools still will be required to report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks. Students and staff with symptoms of COVID-19 still will be required to quarantine away from school buildings. Testing must remain accessible for those who have symptoms or have been exposed, according to Inslee’s office.

Social distancing, ventilation and sanitation requirements also will be updated in the new Department of Health guidance.

Reykdal said the new guidance does not mean the pandemic is over. Instead, it adds “a little more flexibility to take that next step,” he said.

Until the new guidance is in place, however, Reykdal said it is still the law to follow mask mandates and other Department of Health guidance.

Inslee said he hopes districts and businesses fully understand they are breaking the law if they choose to end a mask mandate before March 21. That can lead to fines or loss of licenses, he said.

Washington Education Association President Larry Delaney urged communities to continue taking reasonable steps to protect themselves against the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Front-line educators see the challenges that we must address to have a smooth transition,” Delaney said in a statement. “We are pleased that districts will have adequate time to anticipate issues with staffing adequacy and inequities along with mask access for those who want them.”

Moving forward

Last week, Inslee said Washington is entering a transition period out of the pandemic. He announced an end to the mask requirement for large outdoor events, which will lift Friday. He also said the National Guard was no longer needed at hospitals, and restrictions on less critical procedures would lift Friday.

The governor’s office urged employers to continue to adhere to safe workplace protocols, even when the masking requirement is lifted. Employers still should try to find ways to minimize COVID-19 risks, such as by promoting vaccination, improving ventilation and encouraging social distancing.

Employers still are required to notify workers of potential exposures. Employees must still be allowed to wear masks if they choose, according to Inslee’s office.

Even after March 21, however, health officials urge the public to get vaccinated, wear a mask if they want and make decisions best for them. Private businesses, local governments and school districts can still implement vaccination or face mask requirements as they see fit, Inslee said.

Inslee also said he would not be ending the state of emergency on March 21, as having one in place allows the state to use federal funds and put in other protections against the virus, if needed.

“The threat of COVID will not be eliminated on March 21,” Inslee said.

As the state moves to a more endemic approach, Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah said they would be shifting the prioritization to protecting those who are the most vulnerable, such as immunocompromised people or those who work in health care.

The state is continuing to increase its testing supply, vaccine availability and other tools, Shah said.

Laurel Demkovich'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.