Washington state is reopening this week. Here's what you need to know

Crosscut answers your questions about what life without COVID restrictions may look like: Updated with more information about masks for the unvaccinated and answers to other reader questions.

Top left: Rob Henning and Dana Hunter, Ellensburg locals and long-time Red Pickle regulars on Sept. 9, 2020. (Emily McCarty/Crosscut) Top right: People gather at Gas Works Park on April 9, 2020, in Seattle. (Sarah Hoffman/Crosscut) Bottom left: Reign FC plays the Portland Thorns FC at Cheney Stadium in Tacoma on Sept. 29, 2019. (Jovelle Tamayo for Crosscut) Bottom right: Iman Hassan of Seattle receives her first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine at Lumen Field Event Center's COVID-19 vaccination site on March 13, 2021. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Wednesday is supposed to be the end of pandemic restrictions in Washington state, but most of us are at least a little confused about what exactly reopening means.

Crosscut is here to help. If you don’t see one of your questions answered here, use the form at the end of this story and tell us what else you need to know. For now, feel free to substitute the answer we’ve been giving to many COVID questions for the past year and a half: it’s complicated.

What is reopening?

Updated on June 29 at 2:15 p.m.

Pretty much everything. Restrictions have been lifted on how many people can dine in a restaurant at one time, on the maximum capacity in bars, churches, concert halls, movie theaters, etc. Businesses are still allowed to set their own standards, as they always have been able to do. (“No shoes, no shirt, no service,” remember?) But the state government is no longer requiring 6 empty feet between tables or theater seats. And, yes, in response to reader questions, you will be able to sit at the bar and order a drink after midnight, if your bar decides to stay open that long.

Can we stop wearing masks?

Gov. Jay Inslee announced in May that people who have been fully vaccinated can stop wearing masks and social distancing both indoors and outside. This follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s updated guidelines saying people who have been fully vaccinated can safely stop wearing masks, except where required by state or local rules. Exceptions include health care facilities, public transit, schools and shelters. Businesses may still require their customers to wear masks and they may ask for proof of vaccination.

But should you stop wearing a mask?

Washington Health Secretary Dr. Umair Shah says people who have been fully vaccinated are protected from the virus or at least its worst effects — and the chance of them spreading the virus to others is almost zero — so masks are no longer needed.

The reality is very different for people who are not vaccinated. Despite the fact that almost 70% of Washingtonians 16 and older have been at least partially vaccinated (68% as of June 20), several variants of the virus continue to spread in Washington and unvaccinated people are still getting sick and dying.

People who have been vaccinated but are at increased risk of complications from the virus should consider wearing a mask indoors in public settings as an extra precaution, state and local health officials have recommended. If your immune system is compromised, your own doctor has likely given you the same advice.

Shah added that parents need to set an example for children who cannot be vaccinated and continue to wear masks in public, even if they are fully vaccinated. As he said during a recent Crosscut event, this is the approach he is using with his children.

Washington isn’t seeing many COVID infections in kids under 11, but they are still at some risk. People 19 and younger make up 2% of Washington’s COVID-related hospitalizations and zero deaths. Vaccine trials for children as young as 6 months are now underway and health officials expect shots to be approved for younger children later this summer or in the early fall.

Readers want to know:
Do unvaccinated people still need masks?

Added June 29 at 2:15 p.m.

Both employees and customers who have not been vaccinated are still required to wear a mask while working indoors or outdoors where they cannot stay 6 feet away from others. This applies to all industries, both public and private, and companies can require employees to show proof of vaccination to get off the mask list. It's up to employees if they want to share that information, but if they choose not to tell their employer if they've been vaccinated, their employer can require them to wear a mask. And, yes, companies and organizations can ask people to show proof of vaccination before entering their building and turn people away who refuse to do so.

What about the variants?

Dr. Scott Lindquist, acting state health officer, said three variants are now spreading in Washington state but the existing vaccines appear to be protecting people from all strains currently circulating here.

“Let us worry about the variants,” Shah said. “People can do their part by getting vaccinated.” Both Lindquist and Shah said repeatedly at a news conference this week: People who have been vaccinated can pretty much go about their lives as they did before the pandemic.

The CDC reports research, so far, indicates the vaccines are effective against any version of the coronavirus moving around the United States. But more studies are underway. One thing research has shown, according to the CDC, is that the vaccines are effective at preventing severe illness from COVID-19, as promised.

Should we worry about the danger of the COVID vaccines?

Added June 29 at 2:15 p.m.

One reader asks: Any thoughts regarding the 3,600 people who have died after taking the COVID vaccine? Why is there no mention (concern) that this vaccine is killing five times as many people as a typical flu vaccine?

The CDC says there have actually been 5,479 reports of deaths (0.0017%) among the 318 million doses of COVID-19 vaccines administered in the United States between Dec. 14, 2020, and June 21, 2021. But they note that reports of adverse events following vaccination, including deaths, do not mean that a vaccine caused a health problem. They are reviewing available clinical information about the people who died after a vaccine and few causal relationships between the vaccines and the deaths have been found so far.

Health officials maintain that your chance of dying from COVID-19 remains much more likely than the rare possibility of dying from a vaccine side effect. Comparisons between any two vaccines and their safety records seems fraught, since you can't take a flu vaccine and be protected from COVID-19, but it would be better to get medical advice from your doctor than from a journalist.

Is the pandemic over?

“We want to make sure people do not forget the pandemic is not over until it’s truly over,” Shah said. The virus hasn’t run out of hosts yet and until it does, the pandemic isn’t going away. In the two weeks before June 24, 242 people were hospitalized with COVID-19 in Washington state, and the state reported nine deaths that day.

Nearly all COVID deaths in the United States are now among the unvaccinated, according to federal data from May analyzed by The Associated Press. As state health officials keep saying, the vaccines appear to be even more effective than the vaccine trials indicated. Vaccinated people accounted for just 0.1% of the 853,000 hospitalizations attributed to COVID-19 in May, the CDC reported. The data collected from 45 states shows 150 of the more than 18,000  people who died from COVID-19 that month had been fully vaccinated, or 0.8% of deaths.

Although no one will be going around the grocery store or movie theater asking unmasked people to show proof of vaccination, state and local health officials are urging unvaccinated people to continue to wear masks indoors, especially among other unvaccinated people. But the more effective way to protect yourself from the virus would be (you guessed it) to get vaccinated.

How can I get the vaccine?

People can find available vaccine appointments at the state Department of Health’s vaccine locator website. They also can call the state’s multilingual telephone hotline number at 800-525-0127. Another resource is the Washington COVID Vaccine Finder, which calls itself a community-driven effort to help Washingtonians find vaccine appointments.

Is it safe to travel?

Vaccinated people can now travel safely, but moving around the country or the world may be one of the most dangerous activities for unvaccinated people. The spread of COVID-19 appears to have slowed in Washington state, because such a large percentage of the population has been vaccinated. But traveling to places where fewer people are fully vaccinated or where the virus is spreading more actively could put both the unvaccinated visitor and the people he or she is visiting at risk, Shah said.

In case you are thinking of a quick trip up to Canada, that border is still closed to most people. People with close family members in Canada may be able to visit, if they can quarantine for two weeks upon arrival.

Can I hug, or shake hands with, an unvaccinated friend?

If you are fully vaccinated, you can hug or shake hands with anyone you want and not worry about ending up in the hospital with the coronavirus, Shah said. It’s not safe for unvaccinated people to hug or shake hands with other unvaccinated people but touching the vaccinated is OK.

Shah has taken several opportunities lately to remind people that some lessons learned during the pandemic should guide our actions going forward. Staying home when you’re sick, wearing a mask when you can’t, washing your hands and keeping hand sanitizer handy will all help stop colds, flu and other viruses and germs from spreading.

Who should I believe: WHO or CDC?

Added June 29 at 2:15 p.m.

Compared with the CDC or Washington state, the World Health Organization is promoting a different point of view on wearing masks. This is confusing our readers and others. They want to know: Who should they believe? Is it safer to just continue to wear a mask in public? This is probably a decision individuals will have to make for themselves.

While the mask mandates are being lifted in Washington state and elsewhere for those who have been fully vaccinated, whether you continue to wear a mask in public is still up to the individual. Keep reading and talk to your doctor to get more guidance on this topic.

Will we ever say goodbye to COVID-19?

Nobody knows for sure, but health officials are singing one refrain: When enough people are vaccinated, the virus will run out of hosts and stop spreading.

“The best way to think of this is it’s like a gladiator game out there,” Lindquist said. “Viruses are competing for people who are unvaccinated, essentially.”

Shah calls COVID-19 a “super squirrelly virus that has broken every rule in the playbook.” Get vaccinated, he says, and tell your friends and family to do the same.

Have another reopening question? Send it to us by filling out the form, below.

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