What the current COVID-19 rules are in Washington state

The rules changed when Gov. Jay Inslee announced new restrictions in November, including shutting down indoor dining and social gatherings.

woman walking down the street

Washington takes tiny steps toward reopening amid the pandemic, but masks and physical distancing remain the best lines of defense against spreading COVID-19. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Washington has seen a significant rise in cases of the novel coronavirus this fall. The pandemic doesn’t appear to be going away anytime soon. Gov. Jay Inslee announced on Nov. 15 new   restrictions designed to slow the spread of COVID-19.

We offer this primer to answer your questions and help you live the most normal life possible right now, including lots of links for more information about your particular circumstances and to help you track changes in the restrictions.

Let us know if you still have questions and we’ll do our best to update this story with more answers.

Is the mask order a rule or a suggestion?

Since the end of June, Washington has had a statewide mask mandate. Every Washingtonian is required to wear a face covering that covers their mouth and nose while in a public space, both indoors and outdoors. The indoor rule applies to most situations when you’re not at home. The outdoor rule applies when proper social distancing can’t be maintained. You may remove your mask while eating or drinking as long as you are 6 feet away from others who are not part of your household. When walking around the neighborhood, running or doing other exercises outdoors, masks are not required, as long as you stay at least 6 feet away from others.

Masks are required every time you go into a store and the people who work there are supposed to refuse to serve customers if they disobey this order. Business owners can get in trouble if they do not follow these rules. People who don’t want to wear a mask in public places have another option in Washington state: They can stay home.

What phase are we in?

Every county in Washington is in either Phase 2 or 3, but the governor's action on Nov. 15 made some significant changes to the phase system.

Indoor social gatherings are no longer allowed with people outside your household. You may meet outside with up to five people from outside your household. Those gatherings must include physical distancing of 6 feet or more. Many businesses are allowed to operate, but generally at a 25% capacity.

So can I invite my friends over to hang out?

If you choose to hold a party or a family gathering that involves more than the suggested limit on social gatherings, the police won’t come knock on your door, but social gatherings, including holiday celebrations, are now banned. The governor says most recent cases are associated with activity in our homes. What health officials want people to consider when they hear about Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay home” orders is: What can you do to keep yourself, your family and your neighbors “safe”? As epidemiologists at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have said repeatedly: Wearing masks, washing your hands, using hand sanitizer and having fewer interactions with people not in your household will stop coronavirus from spreading further. When we bend the rules, we bend them for everyone we spend time with.

How can a county advance to the next phase?

Counties can apply to move to the next phase if they show improvement under a few key metrics. But there is no hard-and-fast rule about what it takes to pass the test, which counties can do even if they miss one of the key metrics but are close. For example, state health officials are looking for 25 or fewer new cases of coronavirus per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period before graduation to the next phase. The state’s risk assessment dashboard tracks how the state and the counties are doing. As of the beginning of October, the two-week average for King County, for example, was 93.5 new cases per 100,000 people. The state is also looking for a decrease in the number of positive tests over a week. King County is still averaging over 2%; the goal is to be 2% or less. But the county has been doing well on two other metrics: percentage of treatment beds occupied by COVID-19 patients and general hospital occupancy rates.

What new activities are allowed now?

Also some new activities opened up at the beginning of October, such as libraries, movie theaters and museums, the governor shut those places back down in the week of Nov. 16.

The rules around recreational sports have been relaxed slightly, but tournaments and crowds are still not allowed. Indoor family entertainment, such as minigolf, bowling alleys and arcades are still prohibited.

Live entertainment is still prohibited, except performances for members of the same household where social distancing of a minimum 10-foot distance is always maintained from the entertainers and everyone wears facial coverings.

What are the rules for businesses?

Added Oct. 28, 2020, at noon

The governor's office has posted a lot of information online about which businesses are considered essential and what the business rules are during each phase.

If you're worried about workplace safety during the coronavirus pandemic, the Washington Department of Health offers guidance.

The state Department of Labor & Industries answers questions about business safety and workplace rules on its website.

Where to complain about businesses not following the rules?

Added Oct. 28 at noon

You can file business complaints through the governor's office. This site also offers links to information about what is an essential business and what are the state's reopening rules. Local law enforcement officials ask the public to please refrain from calling 911 when they see someone not wearing a mask in a local business. And for the readers asking how to report a religious organization not following the rules, nonprofit business complains should be sent the same link as all other business complaints.

What about weddings and funerals?

As of Sept. 16, weddings and funerals are allowed indoors or outdoors, with occupancy limited to 30 guests or 25% building capacity, but as of the week of Nov. 16, all receptions are banned.

What are the rules for religious organizations?

Religious organizations are allowed to hold services, but with capacity limitations in Phases 2 and 3.

Indoor religious services at 25% capacity or up to 200 people, whichever is less, are now allowed in Phase 2, but there needs to be 6 feet of social distancing between households in all directions. Cloth face coverings are required for all participants. Religious organizations are also allowed to hold outdoor services on their property or an adjacent property, if permitted by local jurisdictions, for up to 200 individuals, with housholds physically distanced in all directions. Cloth face masks are still required outside. Religious organizations are also allowed to hold in-home and in-person meetings with up to five people, each wearing cloth face coverings.

The same rules apply in Phase 3, but the limits are 50% of room capacity or 400 people. In-home services can be held with up to 10 people.

Religious weddings and funerals do not follow this guidance. They are supposed to follow the specific instructions, as detailed in the previous question.

When can public schools reopen?

School reopening decisions are mostly local choices within the wider state health guidelines around coronavirus. The Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction has created a long, complicated document to guide school districts in making reopening decisions, but districts around the state are making different decisions that meet their local realities. If you want to try to figure out or predict your own school district’s actions, you might want to check out this 22-page guide created by the OSPI.

When does the statewide eviction moratorium end?

Updated on Oct. 28, 2020, at noon

The eviction moratorium has been extended through Dec. 31. But that doesn’t mean a landlord can’t kick out a bad tenant, and it doesn’t stop landlords from selling their property and effectively evicting renters in that way. The governor’s guidance requires a 60-day notice if an owner intends to occupy a rental or sell it.

The eviction moratorium was designed to stop landlords from evicting tenants who can’t pay their rent because of a direct or indirect impact of the COVID-19 virus. The governor’s office says it is working on an amendment to the moratorium to make it clearer that other reasons for not paying rent do not apply to this protection.

If you think your eviction violates these rules, you can complain to state government.

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