(The Center Square) – States across the nation are opening up amid the pandemic. Washington's latest health rules are adding a new layer of frustration for employers and workers alike.
According to Washington's Department of Labor and Industries, fully vaccinated people working in Washington can go mask-free only if their bosses can verify their vaccination status in writing. Employers can require their workers to continue to wear face masks, vaccinated or not. The rules are more complicated than neighboring Oregon, where businesses must verify vaccination status if they want customers to go mask-free.
Clarifications from Gov. Jay Inslee state that customers entering a business without a mask can be assumed to be vaccinated. Businesses may take their word for it or demand proof. If a customer refuses to offer information or wear a mask, the business must show them the door unless it endangers their workers.
David Groves, the communications director for the Washington State Labor Council, tells The Center Square the union group does not recommend mandating vaccinations for workers or customers. Groves says the practice could escalate confrontations in the workplace between workers and customers.
"We tend to hope that employers will err on the side of caution and protecting their employees," Groves said. "If people get in the habit of putting on a mask when they go into a public place or into a retail establishment or a restaurant, I don't see the harm in maintaining that habit. We shouldn't be offended if someone else chooses to wear a mask."
Groves also voiced concerns about the state reaching the threshold for herd immunity—or the stage at which a virus is transmitted less easily—anytime soon. Though Inslee has pegged the vaccination rate necessary to fully reopen at 70%, there is no universal consensus among scientists when transmission will no longer be of public concern.
Under FDA guidelines, full vaccination is estimated to kick in two weeks after receiving your second shot of Pfizer or Moderna's COVID-19 vaccines or two weeks after receiving one shot of Johnson & Johnson's one-shot vaccine.
Inslee's office has listed a host of exemptions for the state's new mask rules. They include cruises, overnight camps and sporting events requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test for all involved. Larger spectator events require proof of vaccination for everyone ages 12 and up or a negative COVID test for those between the ages of 5 and 12 for admission to vaccinated sections.
Washington counties continue to issue their own recommendations despite the new state and federal guidance. Last week, King County Health Officer Dr. Jeff Duchin strongly recommended residents age five and older wear masks until 70% or more of the county's residents 16 and older are fully vaccinated. King County, home to 2.26 million people, is projected by the county health department to reach that benchmark by the end of June. Currently, some 57% of its residents are fully vaccinated.
The Washington Hospitality Association has petitioned Inslee to reopen the state fully by June 15, bringing Washington's reopening timeline in line with California. Inslee has committed to fully reopen Washington by June 30 should the vaccine rollout continue unabated.
"Our industry has been the hardest hit by far over the last 14 months of the pandemic, yet we have not called for reopening until today," said President and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, Anthony Anton. "It's time."
All Washington counties remain under the state's least restrictive Phase 3, allowing bars and restaurants to host indoor dining at 50% capacity. The state's phased reopening system, which lets counties meet one of three benchmarks related to COVID hospitalization and case rates, has drawn fire from state lawmakers over the past year. Many have demanded a special legislative session to restrict Inslee's emergency powers.
As of Tuesday, the CDC's COVID Tracker showed 44.3% of Washingtonians are fully vaccinated, with another 55% having received one dose.
COVID cases have begun declining in Washington. Last week, the Washington Department of Health reported 4,829 new cases of the disease or 44.4% less than the previous week's tally of 8,685 new cases. The agency says 430,639 people have contracted the disease, and 5,764 people have died from it to date.