OLYMPIA — Washingtonians can ditch face masks in most settings starting Saturday, March 12. That’s nine days earlier than originally planned, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday (Feb. 28).
The move hastens what Inslee described this month as an “enormous step” toward normalcy, as COVID-19 cases continue to fall from this winter’s record-high infections. Inslee was joined by the governors of California and Oregon in choosing March 12 to sunset their respective mask mandates.
The decision was spurred over the weekend by a major shift in guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Instead of broad masking recommendations based on case counts, the agency is focusing on whether those infections pose a threat to local health care systems.
In low- to medium-risk counties, the CDC said, masks can safely be taken off. As of last week, that includes 30 of Washington’s 39 counties.
King County’s local indoor mask order will end at the same time as the state’s order, and the county will not be extending a local mask order for schools and childcare facilities, according to a statement by Public Health – Seattle & King County.
“We believe that ending the indoor mask order ten days earlier than the state previously announced will not make a significant difference for our local King County disease trends,” according to the county health department. “King County is now classified at a ‘low COVID-19 community level’ on CDC’s framework.”
Earlier this month, Inslee described March 21 as the “magic point” when daily COVID admissions wouldn’t overburden the hospital system. But he urged Washingtonians to keep their guard up until then. The date was lamented as too far off by Republican state leaders.
In Washington, masks will still be required in health care, long-term care and correctional facilities. Per federal law, face coverings must also be worn on public buses, light rail and in airports and airplanes.
Businesses and local jurisdictions can still impose their own requirements.
So can school districts. But many K-12 leaders across the state have already signaled that they will treat masks as optional after the state lifts its requirement. Under the CDC’s new guidance, masks are no longer be required on school buses.