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Washington indoor mask mandate will lift March 21 with some exceptions

leavenworth_christmas_lights_-_garcia_kid_-_mask_-_december_2020.jpeg
Courtesy of Danica Garcia
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In this file photo from December 2020, a child wears a mask at a Christmas lights celebration in Leavenworth, WA. On Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state's mask mandate will lift on March 21 with some exceptions.

Following in the path of multiple other states, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that he will largely lift the state’s indoor mask mandate, in place since last August, on Monday, March 21.

"I know that there are some people who feel that it should have been ended earlier, I also know that there’s a lot of people who think it maybe is ending too soon. And everyone is entitled to their opinion about this," Inslee said at a virtual news conference to announce the end date.

The highly-anticipated announcement comes as COVID-19 case counts plummet from their peak in January.

Previously, Inslee had announced the state’s mask requirement for large outdoor events would expire on February 18.

Inslee, a Democrat, also declared Thursday that vaccine verification will no longer be required starting March 1 for large indoor and outdoor events. That order had been in place since last October.

Once the mask mandate lifts, the state will no longer require facial coverings in schools, childcare centers, restaurants and bars, churches, gyms and retail establishments like grocery stores.

However, local governments and school districts will retain the authority to enact their own mask mandates, and private businesses will still have the right to require customers to wear masks.

The lifting of the mandate will not apply to healthcare and medical facilities, long-term care settings and jails and prisons. Facial coverings will also still be required on public transit and school buses due to a federal requirement that remains in place.

In a statement following Inslee's announcement, the top Republican leaders in the state Legislature, Rep. J.T. Wilcox and Sen. John Braun, criticized the governor's timetable.

"It’s time to end state mask mandates now. Don’t wait another month. If someone wants to wear a mask in public, it should be by choice — not by mandate," the joint statement said.

On Thursday, New Mexico Gov. Lujan Grisham, also a Democrat, ended her state’s mask mandate effective immediately.

But Inslee said he chose the March 21 date because that's when modeling shows COVID-19 hospitalizations will fall to 5 people per 100,000, a rate he's confident hospitals can handle. Currently, the hospitalization rate is approximately 20 per 100,000.

"These hospitals are still jammed because of COVID," Inslee said. "And they're still to some degree in a crisis mode at this point."

Inslee’s announcement follows similar moves by governors in several other states this month. According to tracking by The New York Times, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island all have or will soon lift or modify their mask mandates.

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown also recently announced an end to her state’s indoor mask requirement by March 31. In Virginia, a new law signed Wednesday will make masks optional in public schools.

On Wednesday, King County — Washington’s most populous county — announced that on March 1 it will end its requirement that businesses like restaurants, bars and gyms require patrons to provide proof of vaccination or a negative test. After that, businesses will be free to choose to continue the policy or abandon it.

Inslee’s office on Thursday also emphasized that restaurants and other businesses that wish to continue requiring proof of vaccine can do so.

In preparation for the lifting of the mask requirement at schools, the Department of Health plans to issue fresh guidance to schools to help them make the transition. That will include converting the current requirements about distancing, ventilation and sanitation into recommendations.

Schools will still have to report COVID-19 cases and outbreaks and cooperate with public health efforts like contact tracing.

Until March 21, current school requirements — including masking rules — will remain in effect.

Masking requirements for employees at work will also lift on March 21, but Inslee’s office emphasized that a new state law requires employers to allow workers the option to continue to wear masks during a public health emergency.

Inslee and then-Secretary of Health John Wiesman first announced a statewide mask mandate in June 2020, just three months into the pandemic, amid rising case counts.

In May 2021, that requirement was largely lifted for people who were fully vaccinated. But in August, as the delta variant surge took hold, the governor and current Sec. of Health Umair Shah re-imposed the mask mandate even on vaccinated individuals.

Then, in September of that year, the face covering requirement was amended to include crowded outdoor events of 500 or more people.

Inslee’s announcement Thursday comes as COVID-19 case counts are quickly falling from their all-time high in January. At the peak, Washington was experiencing a rolling seven-day average of 19,000 cases, according to the state’s dashboard. As of February 3, the most recent date for which the state has complete data, that had dropped to about 7,000 cases, a 63 percent reduction.

More recent data compiled by The New York Times show an even more dramatic decline that puts case counts back to where they were at the peak of the delta variant surge last summer.

COVID hospitalizations have also started to drop.

The Department of Health estimates that about 73 percent of Washington’s eligible population of 5 and up is fully vaccinated.

This story has been updated.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."