Mask mandate extended to large outdoor gatherings

Governor hints at potential vaccination requirements for patrons of businesses

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Gov. Jay Inslee expanded the state’s mask mandate to include large outdoor gatherings, while also alluding to a potential system for Washington state businesses to vet COVID-19 vaccination status for patrons.

Beginning Sept. 13, outdoor gatherings of more than 500 people will require facial coverings, Inslee announced during a press conference Thursday. The measure expands the existing mandate for masks in public indoor spaces, regardless of vaccination status.

Vaccination was a central topic during the press conference with Inslee and Washington State Secretary of Health Umair Shah.

“This continuing pandemic that rages on is because of two things: (the) delta variant and those who are unvaccinated,” Shah said, adding COVID-19 hospitalizations will likely continue to grow  in the coming weeks.

“When we started this pandemic, we were hoping, praying for a vaccine that could knock it down and keep it at bay and yet even though we have it, we still have hospitalizations going through the roof,” Inslee said.

Because of the spike in the “fifth wave” of the pandemic, hospitals across the state have stopped elective procedures, and implemented other capacity measures, Inslee said. He said patients from Idaho are coming into Washington’s health systems, asking for the Gem State to adopt similar safety measures.

“Our vaccination efforts are actions of compassion across borders,” Inslee said.

The governor noted Cowlitz County specifically where he said morgues and funeral homes are at capacity.

“We have local leaders sometimes who aren’t looking for answers to this problem, but rather for excuses for inaction. That is a deadly situation,” Inslee said, calling vaccination and adherence to pandemic mandates a “public responsibility.”

“When you make a decision to not be vaccinated, it is not just about your health, it is about the health of everyone around you,” Inslee said. “We need more people to think a little less about ‘me’ and thinking a little more about ‘we.’”

Inslee thanked Jefferson and Clallam counties for requiring proof of vaccination for bar and restaurant patrons, and professional sports teams for similar requirements, hinting such measures could be employed statewide.

“It’s the kind of measure that we might consider on a wider basis as this pandemic increases,” Inslee said. “We are considering measures where the state can help move in this direction.”

Shah said five outdoor events across the state became superspreader events recently, with infections at concerts, fairs and rodeos. Inslee said the masking requirement would be enforced on entities organizing the events, adding it would be enforceable through the state’s Department of Labor and Industries. 

As of the press conference, the state has the resources to handle its health care system, Shah said, likening the system to the finite elasticity of a rubber band, though he noted that ability could not last indefinitely.

“If you stretch a rubber band, eventually the rubber band breaks,” Shah said. “It stretches quite a bit … but you cannot sustain that over time.”

Shah stressed kindness toward health care workers who are feeling the strain of a burdened system.

“We can always thank our health care workers, and we’ve been doing that for 18-plus months, but ultimately this isn’t just about thanking people, it’s also about helping support the work that they are doing within the health care system,” Shah said.

Inslee said the state is looking into vendors that might provide an “easy” vaccination status system for businesses to vet their patrons. He said the current measures were undertaken in an effort to avoid shutting down the state’s economy again.

“That’s a thing we had to do to save ourselves from this rampaging pandemic. Now we’ve got a vaccine and masks, and we need to use both of those to avoid shutting down our whole economy,” Inslee said, adding it was “frustrating” that those who bristle at shutdowns and restrictions are not willing to be vaccinated.

“We’re taking a measure which will try to save businesses and save the ability of people to go to restaurants and the like. That’s the strategy (of) the measure that we are adopting,” Inslee said. “We hope that it will be successful.”

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