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Washington state to lift indoor mask mandate on March 21

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                                A worker talks to guests arriving at the Space Needle under a sign that reads “Masks Required,” in Seattle.


    A worker talks to guests arriving at the Space Needle under a sign that reads “Masks Required,” in Seattle.

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington’s statewide indoor mask mandate, one of the few left in the country, will lift in most places on March 21, including at schools and child care facilities, Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.

And starting on March 1, vaccine verification or proof of a negative COVID-19 test will no longer be required for attendance at large events.

Masks will still be required in health care settings, like hospitals and doctor’s offices, and at long-term care facilities, prisons and jails. They will also still be required on public transit, taxis, ride-hail vehicles and school buses.

Private businesses and local governments that want to require masks for employees, customers or residents will still able to do so.

Inslee said that the late March date to lift the mask mandate is based on hospital admission projections. During Thursday’s news conference, he showed a chart that shows hospitalizations for COVID-19 are about 20 per 100,000 people. His goal is to get that number down to 5, which is when he said hospitals can return to more normal operations.

“To those who think maybe it should end earlier, all I can tell you is we lost 1,000 people in January to this disease,” he said. “And when we make decisions, it seems to me we ought to have a recognition of how dangerous and deadly this disease still is after this period of time.”

Like the rest of the country, Washington — which first imposed a statewide mask mandate in June 2020 — has seen a steady decline in both cases and hospitalizations since the height of the omicron surge last month.

Last May, the state changed its requirements to align with guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which allowed vaccinated people to go without a mask indoors, but that exception was rescinded in August 2021 after the delta variant emerged. A face covering requirement for outdoor events of 500 or more people was imposed in September, but Inslee announced last week that mandate would lift on Friday.

Also starting Friday, non-urgent procedures — which have been on hold since last month due to concerns about hospital capacity — can resume, since the governor decided to not extend the ban beyond the set four weeks.

Democratic governors in several states have already ended or set dates to end masking rules in public places or in schools. New Mexico’s governor announced Thursday that the statewide mask mandate there was being lifted, effective immediately, leaving Hawaii as the only state that has not indicated when its indoor mask mandates may be rescinded.

On Wednesday, King County — where Seattle is located — announced it will no longer require COVID-19 vaccination checks to enter restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms beginning March 1.

CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing Wednesday that the government is contemplating a change to its mask guidance in the coming weeks.

Republican legislative leaders criticized the news Thursday, saying that it was time to end the mask mandate now.

“If someone wants to wear a mask in public, it should be by choice — not by mandate,” Sen. John Braun and Rep. J.T. Wilcox said in a joint statement.

There have been more than 1.4 million confirmed or probable cases in the state since the start of the pandemic and 11,522 deaths.

More than 80% of the Washington population age 5 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, and nearly 73% is fully vaccinated.

As of this week, more than 2.5 million people have either received a booster or a third dose, according to the Department of Health.

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