(The Center Square) – This fall, Washington students will be wearing face masks no matter their vaccination status. Period.
That's the word from Gov. Jay Inslee, who announced his decision during a news conference Wednesday. He pointed to rising COVID cases around the state as the reason for residents to be extra cautious. School staff and students are required under current state and federal law to wear masks indoors. Wednesday's news dashed widespread hopes the rule would be gone when schools reopen in mid-September.
"We have to remain vigilant and we know we have to take action," Inslee said. "These numbers are going up dramatically."
It's been almost a month since the state fully reopened. In that time, 7-day case rates have seen double-digit increases and are nearing 800 or just below what the state saw last spring. Eight Western Washington counties are advising people to mask up again while indoors as the COVID-19 delta variant picks up steam.
Even with the increase in cases, total infections are a small fraction of the rates seen in 2020. Data from the state's Department of Health shows at least 94% of COVID-19 cases, deaths and hospitalizations involved people who were not fully vaccinated between February and July 2021.
Inslee stressed to the public on Wednesday that masking up at school is the law, not a recommendation. The change falls in line with new CDC guidance issued this week.
"Children under 12 aren't eligible for the vaccine, and we've also seen this delta variant poses a greater risk to younger people than previous COVID strains," Inslee said. "This is state law and not following this will mean schools are not following the law."
Various comprehensive studies have shown children are at extremely low risk of death or hospitalization from COVID-19. The delta variant is too novel for similar studies to prove they're more susceptible, though it has been found to spread more easily.
Nationwide, the delta variant accounts for approximately 80% of all new COVID cases. Scientific research suggests it could be up to 50% more contagious than earlier variants of the virus and poses the biggest threat to unvaccinated people. That includes children below the ages of 12 who remain ineligible for vaccination under FDA guidelines.
Most face mask and social distancing rules were lifted on June 30 in Washington. Inslee has not signaled whether the new wave of delta variants in the state may spur another executive order, but businesses currently have the power to enforce their own rules at their leisure.
So far, a handful of businesses around the Puget Sound have begun stepping up their COVID precautions. In Seattle, food and drink venues like The Woods Bar and The Cuff Complex require physical vaccination cards or screenshots of people's vaccination status from an online portal for entry, based on their social media feeds. The Doctor's Office, a bar in Seattle's Capitol Hill neighborhood, is also requiring vaccination cards or a recent negative COVID test for service.
Inslee has exercised his gubernatorial powers more than almost any governor in the country amid COVID. According to Ballotpedia, the three-term governor has issued 63 orders related to the pandemic or more than any state except for Michigan, Colorado, Minnesota, Massachusetts and Arkansas. The Washington GOP tried to wrestle those powers away from Inslee this year to no avail.
COVID vaccine manufacturers Pfizer and Moderna have both filed applications for full FDA approval for their two-shot vaccines. A decision from the federal agency could come as soon as this fall.