Washington state to require masks for large outdoor events
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that starting next week, the state’s indoor mask mandate will be expanded to include outdoor events with 500 or more attendees, regardless of vaccination status.
The new requirement — which takes effect Monday — comes days after a similar outdoor mask mandates took effect in the state’s two most populous counties, King and Pierce, due to rising COVID-19 cases. An indoor mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status, has been in place in Washington since Aug. 23.
Inslee said that while the outdoors remain the safest place for people, concerns about transmission still exist in outdoor areas where people are packed close to each other. He cited the outdoor Watershed Festival at the Gorge, a three-day country music festival that drew more than 25,000 people six weeks ago, that led to more than 200 infections.
“When you combine large crowds with the delta variant without any mitigation measures in place, we’re going to keep seeing these super spreader events, even in outdoor environments,” he said.
Last month, Oregon was the first state to reinstitute a statewide mask requirement for outdoor public areas where people are close together.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recommended that everyone regardless of vaccination status wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas where there is “substantial or high” rates of COVID-19 and has recommended considering masks in crowded outdoor settings in areas with high numbers of COVID-19 cases.
As of this week, all of the state’s 39 counties were in the “high” threshold range, according to a CDC tracker.
Washington has already imposed a vaccine mandate for most state workers, plus all public, charter and private school teachers and staff and those working at the state’s colleges and universities. There is no weekly testing alternative, and the only opt-out is a medical or religious exemption.
An estimated 363,000 employees are covered under the mandate, though it’s unclear how many within that group are already vaccinated.
Last weekend, Washington’s largest state labor union announced a tentative agreement for the order as it applies to state workers.
The Washington Federation of State Employees, which had sued on behalf of its 46,000 workers, negotiated terms with the state that still must be ratified by members.
The tentative agreement allows that anyone who is eligible to retire by the end of the year can forgo the vaccine if they use accrued or unpaid leave until they reach their retirement date. Those who miss the October deadline will also be allowed to take leave for up to 30 days in order to get vaccinated. And workers won’t lose their jobs while they wait for a determination on their exemption request and those denied will have 45 days on leave to get fully vaccinated.
Inslee said Thursday that the state is still in the process of bargaining with other state unions, and said that he thought the WSFE agreement template “is a good one.”
There have been more than 531,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus more than 63,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 6,850 deaths. State health officials say that most of the state’s new infections are caused by the delta variant, a more contagious version of the coronavirus.
As of this week, nearly 74% of people age 12 and older have initiated vaccination and 67% are fully vaccinated.