Gov. Jay Inslee said on Tuesday that all Washingtonians will be required to wear a face covering in public places as the state tries to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Inslee announced the facial covering requirement during a press conference and said his decision was spurred on by recent increases of infections in the state following the easing of restrictions as part of the “Safe Start Washington” plan allowing for individuals to be patrons to businesses and take part in gatherings.
Inslee said that beginning June 26 facemasks will be legally required in public places for work, errands or entertainment, adding that there will not be a requirement in outdoor instances where 6 feet of distance between individuals can be maintained.
Inslee said there will be exemptions for individuals with respiratory conditions that would be negatively impacted by a mask, for those who are deaf or hard of hearing and need mouth visibility to communicate, and for children under the age of five.
The governor added that masks may be removed for some kinds of recreation, or when dining, noting the examples given were “not an exhaustive list.”
“Obviously we have to use our common sense,” he said.
“Until a vaccine or a cure is developed, this really is going to be our best defense,” Inslee said. Regarding what kinds of facial coverings fit the order, “everybody’s style is acceptable,” he said, as long as the nose and mouth are covered.
“I think of these face coverings, in some sense, as a statement ... that when you wear it, it means you care about people,” Inslee said, pointing to evidence that transmission can occur with little to no symptoms from a carrier.
Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said that between 20 and 40 percent of COVID-19 cases are asymptomatic, which along with “presymptomatic” transmission made up a notable amount of disease spread.
Wiesman said that recent studies of similarly-spread diseases showed homemade masks could help stop the spread, as did a study specifically on COVID-19 which showed reduced transmission when a mask mandate was in place.
“I’ve said many times throughout these (press conferences) that life was going to be different, and this is part of what’s different (in) life right now while the COVID virus is around,” Wiesman said.
Inslee said he had been in favor of masks since early in the outset of the outbreak, “but the science was not compelling at that moment, at that time, that masks had proven effectiveness.”
“Since then the science is becoming, I think, overwhelming that it can benefit people,” Inslee said.
As to the reasoning for a mask mandate, Inslee said infection rates in both Eastern and Western Washington were trending up, with both sides of the state past a threshold of the number of additional transmissions per case.
Inslee pointed to Yakima County, which he called the “epicenter” of the COVID-19 outbreak in Washington, with recent infection rates 27 times greater than King County. He said in Yakima County hospital capacity was so strained, “there are no rooms available to people for this treatment (for COVID-19),” thus requiring patients to be transported out-of-county for care.
“It’s something we saw in New York. It’s something we saw in Italy. It’s something we’re seeing in Yakima County today,” Inslee said, “and we do not want to see that condition spread across the state of Washington.”
Inslee also said he would sign a proclamation requiring businesses in Yakima County to ensure all patrons had face coverings, which could be enforceable with sanctions, loss of a business license or “potentially injunctive relief.”
Costco CEO Craig Jelinek said he supported the mask requirement “100 percent,” recounting how in the early days of the outbreak “we really didn’t know what we were doing” operating as an essential business and dealing with spread of COVID-19. Costco eventually mandated masks for customers in early May, which Jelinek noted wasn’t well-received by all, though he added he believed the mandatory masks led to considerable flattening of infection spikes.
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 President Faye Guenther said workers represented by the union wore masks for “eight, 12, sometimes more hours a day”
“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,” Guenther acknowledged, adding that “scientists are telling us that masks are the tool” for stopping the spread of COVID-19.
Inslee likened the mask mandate as another tool the state can use to combat COVID-19, as the past closures of most industries and public activity was being put aside. He said that enforcement of the mandate “could be used if necessary, but it shouldn’t be necessary.”
“Ideally there won’t be any criminal or civil sanctions for individuals,” Inslee said, adding he anticipated a similar response to the mask mandate as to the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order that kept people in their homes.
Inslee said that businesses not complying with closure orders during the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order “didn’t happen with any frequency,” though he noted in some cases litigation was filed, adding he hoped there to be similarly broad support of the mask mandate.
Though Inslee noted that not following the mandate was a misdemeanor, “it is not our desire to have hard-working officers following people around on mask issues.”
“We hope that people’s common sense, and recognition of the law and desire to help their fellow neighbors are going to carry the day, here,” Inslee remarked.