Masks can come off indoors, but ‘pandemic isn’t over’

People in most indoor public settings can stop wearing facemasks in Washington as a protection against COVID-19, beginning March 11.

The announcement Feb. 17 by state health officials, at the direction of Governor Jay Inslee, announced Feb. 17 that the lifting of the statewide mask requirement means masks will not be required in most indoor public settings. The state Department of Health cited a reduction in the number and rates of COVID cases and hospitalizations as the reason for the pullback.

Masks won’t go away entirely, though. The state will still require them in healthcare settings such as hospitals, outpatient clinics, dental offices, and long-term care facilities and nursing homes. And federal law still requires masks in public transportation and school buses.

In addition, the state Department of Health recommends the public keep wearing masks in crowded spaces.

County health authorities, who can make their own decisions locally, aren’t all necessarily following the state’s schedule to drop mask requirements . The Seattle-King County Health Department indicated Feb. 18 that it might extend the requirement if that’s considered safer for that county.

The Washington State Hospitals Association also had a contrary view to the state’s. Chief executive officer Cassie Sauer said the association “strongly” encourages people to continue wearing masks in all indoor spaces. Masks help prevent COVID from spreading, which in turn can help hospitals meet the needs of COVID and non-COVID patients.

“We need the public’s help to prevent a COVID resurgence,” Sauer said.

Pierce County health officials there plan to follow the state’s lead. But they urged the public not to let its guard down completely.

“The pandemic isn’t over,” said Dr. Anthony L-T Chen, director of health for Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department. “Please use the best tools available to help protect yourself, your family, and our community from COVID-19 in every situation. Our progress is because of our layered approach. If we remove one layer, we must improve the others. If you haven’t yet, get vaccinated.”