The newest Washington mask mandate: What you need to know

Washingtonians need to mask up inside again as of Monday, Aug. 23, even if they are fully vaccinated.

Statues covered with face masks in Seattle's Fremont neighborhood, April 26, 2020. (Matt M. McKnight/Crosscut)

Washington state officials are once again requiring that everyone wear masks indoors — even people who are fully vaccinated against COVID-19.

The renewed mask mandate, announced Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee, went into effect Monday, Aug. 23. It applies to most indoor public spaces where people might congregate, including restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops, buses, malls and many offices.

Inslee said the step is necessary because the delta variant of COVID-19 has fueled a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across the state. The number of eligible Washingtonians who haven’t gotten vaccinated — about 2 million — is another major factor causing cases to skyrocket, he said.

“The pandemic disease levels are extremely high and are exploding across our state, unfortunately,” Inslee said Aug. 18. “This is a reality we must face.”  

As of Aug. 17, the number of people hospitalized from COVID-19 in Washington was averaging 144 a day, a peak not seen since January, according to the state Department of Health. Confirmed cases were approaching 3,000 a day, on average — numbers also not seen since January.

Businesses will be expected to enforce the mask mandate, which is legally binding and not optional, Inslee said. 

Washington state’s new mask requirement comes a few weeks after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued similar recommendations for the whole country. Counties across Washington issued their own indoor masking recommendations as well.

Why are vaccinated people being asked to mask?

State health officials said the rise of the new delta variant of COVID-19 is a key reason for the new requirement for vaccinated people to wear masks. The delta variant is now the predominant strain of COVID-19 in Washington.

Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy health secretary in charge of COVID-19 response, recently said the delta variant is twice as transmissible as the first variation of the virus, which emerged in late 2019. 

“That means each person who gets infected potentially goes on to infect twice as many people — that is a substantial increase,” Fehrenbach said.

Being vaccinated substantially reduces the risk of someone contracting COVID-19 and spreading it to others. Still, the increased transmissibility of the delta variant raises the risk that some vaccinated people with rare “breakthrough infections” will pass on the virus.

That's why vaccinated people across the state are once again being asked to mask up when they are around other people in indoor spaces. 

As of Aug. 23, every county in Washington state had high COVID-19 transmission rates, according to the CDC.  

Doesn’t the vaccine protect us against the virus variants?

Health officials have noted that the vaccine is still highly effective at preventing hospitalizations from COVID-19. As of late July, 96% of COVID-10 hospitalizations in the state were among people who were not fully vaccinated, health officials said.

In the rare cases when vaccinated people experience a breakthrough infection, the vaccine still provides strong protection against serious illness and death, according to the CDC. The protection provided by the vaccines is substantial, even against the delta variant, the CDC says.

Despite increased cases and hospitalizations, deaths from COVID-19 in Washington state are down significantly since earlier in the pandemic, averaging fewer than 10 a day for the past several weeks. In December, more than 30 people in the state were dying daily from the virus. 

Are there any exceptions to the indoor mask requirement?

In general, any time you are inside someplace where you might interact with other people, you should be wearing a mask. Under the governor’s order, businesses must require their workers and customers to wear face coverings when entering.

The mandate doesn’t apply to children under 5, although the state Health Department strongly recommends that 2-, 3- and 4-year-olds wear a mask with adult help and supervision. Children under 2 should never wear a mask because of the risk that they could suffocate.

The rules do not require people to wear masks outdoors, although health officials recommend that people do so anyway when they can’t maintain adequate social distance. Such situations could include crowded outdoor concerts or farmers markets.

People also can remove face coverings in indoor spaces if they work alone. This applies, for instance, to delivery drivers while inside their cars or janitors working in a building by themselves.

Fully vaccinated people have a little more leeway in certain private office settings. For those fully vaccinated workers, they can remove their masks if they are in an area that is closed to the public and has no visitors present, according to the state mandate.

What about young people and immunocompromised?

The desire to protect young people and others who cannot receive the vaccine, such as people who are immunocompromised, is a major driver of the new masking rules, said Dr. Umair Shah, Washington’s secretary of health.

The latest research suggests that people who are vaccinated can get and spread the virus to others who are unvaccinated and more vulnerable to the virus’s effects. That includes children who are still not eligible to receive the vaccine.

“We know that it’s important to protect our young ones, and we’re going to do everything we can to do that,” Shah said last month.

That’s also why the rules for masking in schools have been stricter for some time. Long before Inslee renewed the indoor mask mandate, school employees and students were required to mask up around one another.

Children under 5 are not required to wear a mask, even though health officials say wearing one is a good idea for all children 2 and older. 

Where are vaccine rates lower in Washington?

In some counties, there are also much higher numbers of people who are unvaccinated. 

While 75.3% of people 12 and over in King County are fully vaccinated, in Asotin and Garfield counties in eastern Washington, only about 30% of eligible people have completed the full vaccine cycle, according to the state Department of Health. 

Those disparities in vaccination rates are another reason the state is asking vaccinated people to consider wearing masks when inside.

“Those who are unvaccinated are unprotected and truly helping drive up our surge,” Shah said.

The county with the highest vaccination rate is San Juan County, where 77% of people 12 and over were fully vaccinated as of Aug. 18.

If these numbers look different from other data published about vaccination rates, that is because some reports are focusing on vaccination rates of people 16 and older, which illustrate higher vaccination rates. 

Does this mean other restrictions are on the way?

The governor has not halted Washington’s reopening. You can still eat in a restaurant or grab a beer at your local pub. You can do so without fear, if you’ve been vaccinated, state health officials said, At the end of June, Washington lifted most pandemic restrictions

The governor said Wednesday that he wants to avoid closing businesses again to prevent damaging the economy. Inslee said he hopes expanding the mask mandate will help prevent a return to more drastic measures, such as mandatory closures.

How can I get the vaccine?

People can find available vaccine appointments at the state Department of Health’s vaccine locator website. They can also call the state’s multilingual telephone hotline number at 800-525-0127.

As of Aug. 16, 71.5% of Washingtonians age 16 and older had at least one shot of the COVID vaccine.

Please support independent local news for all.

We rely on donations from readers like you to sustain Crosscut's in-depth reporting on issues critical to the PNW.


About the Authors & Contributors

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos

Melissa Santos is formerly a Crosscut staff reporter who covered state politics and the Legislature.