by Sally James
Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Feb. 17 that the state will lift state mask requirements indoors in public places, including schools, beginning March 21.
However, schools and districts can choose to continue masking. Businesses can also choose to continue requiring masks.
The largest population area in the state, King County, has not announced the date of any end to its local mask mandate. Seattle-King County Public Health says at its web site “no decision has been made.”
The Seattle Chamber of Commerce, among other groups, is wondering whether the county will impose different requirements than the state.
“It’s been a long journey, but it is not over. It isn’t safe to end this today,” Inslee said at the online event.
Inslee explained that he felt confident in the change on March 21 because of a prediction by state Department of Health scientists. Their model predicted the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 may fall enough by March 21 to make it safer for the state to eliminate the mask requirement. Federal law still requires masks on transportation, such as buses, and that includes school buses.
Currently, there are still an average of 230 hospitalizations each day for COVID-19 in the state, according to the state’s dashboard .
The news rippled through different communities of business owners and families in South Seattle. While some were celebrating the change, others were afraid for their children under 5 years old, who aren’t eligible for the coronavirus vaccine. In an unmasked world at grocery stores and community centers, will children be safe, parents wondered.
Inslee said that the state will change its recommendations for schools on March 7 and allow for a period of transition by March 21.
Schools will still report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks. They will also cooperate with public health departments to respond to outbreaks. Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said that the number of staff and students vaccinated made the no-masking option practical.
“Nearly all of our school employees are vaccinated, the number of vaccinated students increases each day, and we have one of the most robust COVID-19 school testing programs in the country,” Reykdal said.
Chris Odum, who owns eight Planet Fitness clubs mostly in South Seattle and Renton, said he would leave the masking up to his members’ discretion. “I think the members will appreciate the option to choose now,” he told the Emerald in a text message] .
Mother Nicole Minkoff, who lives in Columbia City, said the state’s decision to lift the mandate leaves her feeling very vulnerable. She has a child, 3 years old, who is disabled and can’t be vaccinated, because there is no vaccine for that age. She worries that her employer might ask her to come back to work among people who are unmasked and potentially unvaccinated. She worries she could bring something home to her child.
In a text message with the Emerald, Minkoff said she feels as if there are two groups these days.
One includes households who didn’t have to take as many risks because they could work from home and had access to vaccines. They are ready to return to bars and restaurants and believe the pandemic is over.
But, for a second group, things don’t feel as easy. They might be vulnerable themselves, or be taking care of people who are. Maybe they work in a field that involves more public exposure. For them, the pandemic doesn’t feel “over.”
“Many of the families I know whose kids have disabilities are despairing, along with health care workers,” Minkoff said.
Officials said employers will still have to maintain “safe” workplaces, and COVID-19 remains a health risk. Employers may maintain masking or drop masking and improve testing. Employers are still required to notify employees of coronavirus cases at their workplace.
Inslee and other officials asked the public to be tolerant of different choices that may be made by different people. Inslee said schools would prevent bullying of children by others who disagree with their choices.
“Caution, compassion, and kindness is what will allow us to move forward together,” Inslee said.
Sally James is a science writer in Seattle. You can read more of her work at www.seattlesciencewriter.com. She’s written about biotech, cancer research, and health literacy and volunteered as president of the nonprofit Northwest Science Writers Association.
Featured image is attributed to Governor Jay and First Lady Trudi Inslee’s Flickr Account.