On February 17th, Governor Inslee announced that the statewide indoor mask mandate will be lifted on March 21st, 2022. This mandate, which includes indoor locations such as restaurants, grocery stores, malls, and public-facing offices, has been in effect in some capacity since June 24, 2020. Beginning on March 21st, the mandate will also be lifted for K-12 schools and childcare locations throughout the state.
For many people, this is going to feel like a big change. After all, we’ve been required to wear a face covering for nearly two years now. If you have questions or concerns about this shift in direction—if you are feeling big emotions like frustration, anger, fear, or apprehension—please know that all these responses are valid.
Current Disease Summary
We are still experiencing a level of disease activity across the state that is considered high by the CDC, with case, hospitalization, and death rates still well above what we would have considered “acceptable” prior to the Omicron surge. So, you may ask, why end the mask mandate now?
The governor’s decision is based on science and our current statewide data. While rates are still high, we have been seeing a decrease in new COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations for several weeks now and, as a result, our hospitals are better able to care for patient loads. The date was selected based on our hospitalization trends and where the state predicts we will be in the next several weeks. It has been determined that by March 21st, Washington state will be at a safe level of disease activity, which will allow our hospitals to operate at a sustainable level.
We have also seen similar trends around the globe where Omicron surged before us. Many experts are predicting that the pandemic may be on the way to becoming endemic, meaning most cases will be less severe, and the disease’s impact on society will be more predictable and (in theory) less disruptive.
Another big factor? More than 73 percent of Washingtonians are now at least partially vaccinated against COVID-19 and over 2 million boosters have been administered. The large number of people who were infected during the Omicron surge will also likely result in some additional community immunity, at least for the short term. However, because we don’t know yet how long this immunity lasts or have a way to test for it in individuals, vaccination is recommended for everyone, even those who have been previously infected.
Change Will Be A Gradual Process
It is important to remember that change will be gradual. The governor began the process last Friday by lifting the outdoor mask mandate, which included large outdoor gathering and events with more than 500 attendees. Now, folks are free to attend outdoor concerts, street fairs, and farmers markets sans mask—something that many of us wouldn’t have considered doing back in the thick of 2020 or 2021.
The lifting of the indoor mask mandate on March 21st will also not include certain indoor settings considered to be high-risk for disease spread, like healthcare settings, long-term care, and correctional facilities.
Also still in effect is the federal mask mandate that requires masking on all forms of public transportation, including buses, trains, and airplanes, and in transportation hubs. This mandate is still in place, though the White House is reviewing data and may announce changes in the near future.
And though the mandate will be lifted for K-12 schools on March 21st, schools will still be required to report COVID cases and outbreaks and work with local public health departments to monitor disease activity. Routine testing, isolation, and quarantine protocols will also remain in place per the CDC’s guidance.
Feel Empowered to Mask Up
For those who are weary about taking off their mask, please know that Washingtonians can make their own decisions about when it may be appropriate to wear a mask, even after the mask mandate ends. This goes for businesses, as well, which still retain the right to choose stricter requirements.
Those who want or need to wear a mask in public can continue to do so. If you are at greater risk because of factors such as your age or underlying health conditions, you are encouraged to continue to take more precautions. There also may be certain settings where wearing a mask makes sense, like when caring for someone who is high-risk, if you are sick, if you’re in a location where social distancing isn’t possible, or if you are not fully vaccinated.
And if you are choosing to wear a mask in certain settings, you may wonder what mask you should wear. The answer is simple: Wear the mask that you will use consistently—and correctly.
For additional information on Governor Inslee’s announcement, please read the full press release or call the State COVID-19 Information Hotline at 1-800-525-0127. For local questions related to COVID-19, you may contact Skagit County Public Health at (360) 416-1500.