OLYMPIA — No mask, no service is about to become the law in Washington.
As coronavirus cases surge in many areas of the state, Gov. Jay Inslee on July 2 tapped the brakes on reopening and ordered businesses to not serve customers who fail to wear a face covering.
The governor announced a two-week pause on counties advancing from their current phases under the four-step Safe Start process. This will give state health officials a chance to gauge the effectiveness of expanded requirements for face coverings in bending the curve of new infections downward.
“We know we need to mask up so we can fully open up our economy,” Inslee said at a televised news conference in which he wore a face covering. “The better we can protect ourselves from the virus, the better we can prevent the painful shutdowns that have taken place because of the virus.”
Since ending the stay home order, masks have emerged as the most effective weapon in states’ battle to control the spread of the virus.
In early June, Inslee directed workers statewide to wear face coverings at their job. On June 26, he mandated everyone must wear a mask or face covering in public places, both indoors and in outdoor settings when they cannot maintain a physical distance of at least six feet.
At that time, Inslee also ordered companies in Yakima County, the current epicenter of the pandemic in Washington, to not allow anyone to enter or be served if the person was not wearing a face covering.
Starting July 7, those rules will be in effect statewide as the governor looks to businesses to shoulder a greater responsibility in the fight against the virus. Also this week he’s required employers to cooperate with public health authorities investigating COVID-19 outbreaks and carrying out measures to control infections.
“This is not an optional plan for businesses, ” Inslee said of the new mask mandate. “This is a legal requirement”
While a company could face sanctions or fines for violating the order, the governor said, “we do not want to use these.”
“We think we’re going to have broad support for this effort,” he said, because employers understand “this is the fastest ticket for opening.”
The new mask rules come amid what Inslee called an “extremely troublesome spike” in cases. Transmission rates are now higher in Western Washington after weeks of trailing communities east of the Cascades.
“It means the pandemic is growing, not slowing in Washington state,” he said.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the increase reflects more social interactions — and less adherence to social distancing — as counties open up greater parts of their economies.
“We’re not being as careful as we need to be,” Wiesman said.
State health officials on Thursday reported 728 new cases — the highest one-day total yet — for a total confirmed case count of 34,151. There have been 3,630 cases and 171 fatalities recorded in Snohomish County.
Under the Safe Start plan Inslee rolled out May 29, counties can move through the phases of reopening if they are equipped to test, treat and contain outbreaks of coronavirus in their communities. The state specifies a handful of metrics it wants counties to meet for at least three consecutive weeks before advancing.
A week ago Inslee cited the worsening situation as he declared that no county would be permitted to reach the fourth and final phase of reopening — even though several small counties, relatively untouched by the virus, were ready to do so. In the final stage, life gets pretty much back to normal, with the return of sporting events, concerts and large gatherings.
On Thursday, he pushed the pause button on counties advancing. He also made a change by banning seating at bars until the final phase. It had been allowed under Phase 3. Seventeen counties are in that stage of reopening, which allows gyms and movie theaters to operate at half capacity, and restaurants to operate at 75% capacity.
“We just can’t have people mingling shoulder to shoulder,” Inslee said. “We don’t want to learn the lessons of other states.”
In spite of the pause, some restrictions will be eased in Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties, the current epicenter of the epidemic, to discourage travel to other, less restrictive counties and contain the spread. Construction, manufacturing and outdoor dining are among the activities to be allowed.
Meanwhile, a report released Thursday by the state Department of Health shows the extent to which younger people account for an increasing percentage of new cases.
Those under 35 made up 46% of cases in May and June, up from 22% from January through March, according to the analysis prepared by the Institute for Disease Modeling (IDM) in Bellevue. Meanwhile, the percentage of cases of people over age 75 dropped from 16% in March to 6% in May and June.
“This is a present-day problem in the state of Washington,” Inslee said.
Even as cases rise, there’s been a slowing in the death rate. The report concludes this is a result of the shift of the epidemic’s impact to a younger population which has “a substantially lower COVID-19 mortality risk.”
In another finding, since May, across all age groups, Hispanics accounted for 58% of all cases in which the race and ethnicity of a person is known, though Hispanic people comprise only 13% of the state population. That suggests Hispanic people may be at a higher risk of infection for several reasons, including the fact they tend to live in larger households, might have limited access to health care and provide essential services.
Also Thursday, Inslee sounded resolute against calling lawmakers into special session to address a projected $4.5 billion budget shortfall.
Republican lawmakers, and some Democrats, have called for an extra session to enact cuts and make other spending decision rather than wait until the 2021 session.,
But Inslee said there are ample budget reserves to keep the state operating until then.