Inslee Prepared to Move Counties Back to Earlier Safe Start Phases, Mandate Mask Use

by Carolyn Bick

Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee did not rule out moving counties back to earlier phases of the state’s Safe Start plan and the possibility of instituting a mask-wearing mandate, if novel coronavirus cases across the state continue to rise.

In a press conference on June 17, Inslee said in response to a question from the Emerald that he is prepared to move these counties back into earlier phases, but does not have a specific infection rate that would prompt him to mandate mask usage across the state. He said that such a mandate would depend on the variety of factors the state is currently using to assess counties’ progress through the state’s reopening plan. These factors include death and hospitalization rates, data on the demographics of those infected, and test rates.

“We would do that when we thought it made sense, when the probability of reducing transmission and the ability to actually get compliance with that made sense to do that,” Inslee said. “We look at all of those things, and make the best judgment.” 

Inslee said all the metrics used to assess counties’ health are “extremely disturbing” in Yakima County, Benton County, and Franklin County. Adams County today saw what Inslee termed “an emerging concern,” and King County, which has applied to move into Phase 2, has also seen a significant increase in cases.

Inslee said that he believes that if enough people start to wear masks, these counties and the state as a whole can once again start to decrease its infection rates.

“The science is becoming increasingly clear about the efficacy of masks. As I indicated, there was a report today, I think in The Lancet, that basically did a review of all of the literature about masks, and it is quite compelling that it is productive, particularly inside,” Inslee said, possibly referencing this study published in The Lancet on June 1. 

The Emerald was unable to confirm whether or not this was the study he was remembering, before publication.

Inslee emphasized that masks should be used in all congregate settings, particularly indoors, and that people who do not live in the same households should not be within six feet of one another anywhere, including outdoors.

“If people are all sitting on the same blanket, that’s just a mistake, and it’s dangerous,” Inslee said. “Other communities and other states have seen very rapid rises, as a result of that behavior, and we don’t want to see it in Washington State. And, frankly, it shouldn’t take an edict to get people to understand that, at the moment.”

Though Inslee said the state has enough money saved to get through the next few months, the state is still facing a perilous budget situation. In an effort to save money, Inslee has decided to cancel upcoming state employee pay raises for everyone making more than $53,000 per year, and will be mandating that 40,000 state employees take at least one furlough day per week until July 25. After that, these employees will be required to take one furlough day per month.

Inslee said that this will save the state’s Near General Fund $55 million, and encouraged other agencies outside the state’s control, such as the Legislature, courts, other elected officials, and higher education institutions, to adopt similar measures. Doing so would save another estimated $91 million, the press release said.

Inslee did not say exactly which employees would be required to take furlough days, but said in response to a KIRO reporter’s question that state agencies directly responding to the pandemic and its consequences, such as the Employment Security Department and the Washington State Department of Health, would not be affected.

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