Public Health Officer Announces Directive Encouraging Use of Face Coverings in Public and in Private Businesses

by Carolyn Bick

Public Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin has announced a public health directive for all King County residents to wear masks in public and indoor spaces, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, as per Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Joined by King County Executive Dow Constantine, Mayor Jenny Durkan, and King County Office of Equity and Social Justice Director Matias Valenzuela, Duchin said in a May 11 press conference that the directive will not be enforced and that people will not be fined, but that he is “strongly encouraging” King County residents to wear face coverings, in order to mitigate the spread of the novel coronavirus. The virus travels through the air in droplets and causes COVID-19.

Duchin said that the county is at a precarious time, and that there are about 80 new confirmed cases per day, for a total caseload in King County of more than 7,000 people as of the day of the press conference. There have been 500 deaths in King County from COVID-19, according to the state’s tracker. He said that if people do not follow these guidelines, the county could face a spike in cases. The announcement comes on the heels of Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee’s Friday announcement that Western Washington’s rate of infection has increased.

Constantine said the reason these measures will not be enforced is because the county does not believe it will succeed by turning “protective measures into some kind of cat-and-mouse game.”

“It needs to be a broad, voluntary compliance within the community, because everyone is pitching in to help the community succeed,” Constantine said. “King County has had remarkable success from the very outset with this, primarily through the early and entirely voluntary measures that were taken here.”

Durkan said private businesses will be allowed to refuse customers who do not use face coverings, but said that they will not be allowed to discriminate.

“All the laws against discrimination are in full place and effect, and I would encourage every business to understand the exceptions for masking — children, people who may have hearing or other disabilities — but we know that a number of establishments have established those rules,” Durkan said. “They are allowed to require people to wear masks to come into their facilities.”

Valenzuela said that the county understands the disproportionate impact the virus has been having on communities of color, particularly because people of color tend to work in the essential services sector, such as in grocery stores. He said that among the Latinx, Pacific Islander, and Native Hawai’ian population, the rate of infection is four times as high as in the white population. In the Black community, the infection rate is twice as high.

Because supply chains are currently so stretched, and vulnerable communities are having difficulty accessing materials for appropriate face coverings, Durkan said that the City of Seattle will be distributing 45,000 face coverings to different community groups that serve vulnerable communities, such as communities of color and the homeless community. Constantine said the county will be joining the effort by contributing 115,000 masks to county community groups.

Duchin emphasized that though cloth masks do not reduce transmission 100 percent, they still reduce the risk of catching or spreading the disease. Any face coverings, such as bandanas or scarves, count, he said.

Duchin said best practices include staying as far away from others as possible, and to wash one’s hands before and after putting on a mask. When masks become damp from respiration or use, they should be washed, he said. People should not touch and avoid fiddling with their masks as much as possible, when wearing them.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here.

Featured image Alex Garland