by Ben Adlin
Face masks will soon be mandatory in Washington under a new statewide order meant to combat the growing spread of the coronavirus. Beginning Friday, nearly everyone going out in public will be legally required to wear some sort of facial covering.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced the new requirement at a news conference Tuesday afternoon, calling it a necessary step to curb the upward trend of COVID-19 cases in the state.
“Unfortunately, I have to report that we are experiencing an uptick in the COVID-19 virus activity,” he said. “We know that if we are going to stop the spread of this virus, we need to remain vigilant and diligent and resourceful.”
Inslee went on to stress that his mandate is a “legal requirement.”
Under the new order, anyone over five years old will be required to wear a facial covering in public unless they have a medical reason not to, for example, people with respiratory conditions or who are deaf or hard of hearing. Exceptions apply for some circumstances, such as eating at restaurants or while alone outdoors in public, but otherwise the requirement is universal.
Asked whether he expected the masking requirement would remain in place until a coronavirus cure or vaccine is developed, the governor replied: “I think it is likely that will be the case.”
“We’re just appreciative if everyone can think of this as a new part of the etiquette in our state,” Inslee said. “It’s a statement that, when you wear it, it means you care about people, because it means you want to reduce the risk that you will infect another person.”
People who willfully violate the order could face misdemeanor criminal charges, but Inslee stressed that he wasn’t eager to enforce the mask requirement. Instead, he said, he hoped it would spark “a cultural change.”
“I think the best way to convince someone else to wear a mask is to wear a mask yourself,” Inslee said. “We don’t want to have enforcement of this. Ideally, we won’t have any criminal or civil sanctions.”
While social distancing under Washington’s stay-at-home order effectively reduced the spread of coronavirus during the past few months, Inslee said, the state’s phased reopening of businesses and public events has coincided with a new surge in cases.
“Social distancing that came with closing our businesses did in fact work. It’s just that we no longer want to use it because we want to get our haircut and we want to go shopping again,” he said. “As a result, what we are seeing is that the number of people that one person infects is now going up.”
In both Eastern and Western Washington, Inslee noted, new cases had been flat for weeks but are now spiking upward and entering what he called “the danger zone,” where case numbers are growing exponentially. So far at least 28,870 people have tested positive for coronavirus in Washington state, and at least 1,276 have died.
Meanwhile, counties across the state continue to relax restrictions on businesses and individuals as they move through the state’s phased reopening process.
This past Friday, King County became the last in the state to move into Phase 2 of the process. Under the guidelines, restaurants can now reopen at up to 50% occupancy, in-store retail sales can proceed so long as occupancy is restricted to 30% of the building’s capacity, and staffed indoor fitness studios can operate with five or fewer participants.
Even as state officials approved the change, however, new confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Seattle began to spike. King County as a whole was slower to show an increase in cases, but the latest available numbers from the county Department of Public Health as of Tuesday showed a clear rise in new infections. The week of June 18, for example, saw a 47% increase in new cases compared to the previous week, with new daily case counts higher than they have been for nearly a month.
Public health records also show a recent rise in new cases in nearby counties and the state as a whole. Snohomish County on Monday recorded the highest one-day count of new cases since late April. Statewide numbers show infections now spreading faster than at any point in almost two months.
Yakima County, meanwhile, has become the state’s latest coronavirus hotspot. The infection rate there is now 27 times that of King County, Inslee said, making it one of the hardest-hit counties in the western United States. “The healthcare system is so stressed that there is no room at the hospital in Yakima County,” the governor said. “That means that patients are having to be shipped by ambulance outside of Yakima County”
Businesses in Yakima County will face an additional requirement under the new order: ensuring their customers also wear masks. Those that fail to enforce the requirement, Inslee said, could potentially see their business licenses revoked. While limited to Yakima for now, that requirement could be extended to other counties if conditions worsen, Inslee said.
Speaking as part of the event, Costco CEO Craig Jelinek said the company, which has required customers and employees to wear masks since May 1, said he believes face coverings have effectively reduced the number of employees getting sick at Costco stores.
“I can tell you, that was not a popular decision,” Jelinek said of the decision to ask customers to wear masks, but it’s become more manageable over time.
“We’ve been very successful about giving you two choices: either when you come in, you wear the mask, or we’re not going to let you shop,” he said. “If our employees are going to try to keep you safe, you’re going to try to keep them safe—and everyone around you.”
Faye Guenther, president of UFCW 21, a union that represents grocery and health care workers, among others, acknowledged that while masks can be uncomfortable, a little inconvenience is a small price to pay for saving lives.
“I get it that masks can be annoying, they can be itchy, they can be hot, and it can be hard to connect with others,” she said. But essential workers “are exposed to so many people at work each day and on each shift. Our members worry every day that they’re going to get COVID-19 or take COVID-19 home to the people they love.”
Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said there’s good scientific evidence to show that virtually any kind of facial covering can reduce transmission of the virus.
“A cloth face covering is anything from a scarf or a bandanna to a sewn mask with ties that go behind your head or around your ears,” he said. “The face covering should fit snugly around your mouth and nose.”
Coverings should also be washed after every use, or at least on a daily basis, to prevent contamination, Wiesman said. “All of these are critical steps to keep those around us safe, keep businesses open, and restart our economy.”
Ben Adlin is a Seattle-based journalist.
Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore