Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday that because of an increase in the rate of COVID-19 infection, starting next week, bar seating will no longer be permitted for counties currently in Phase 3 of the state's four-stage reopening plan and businesses statewide will not be able to serve customers who don't wear facial coverings.
Inslee also announced he is ordering a two-week statewide pause for counties looking to advance from their current stage of reopening.
Initially, only businesses in Yakima County - which has been among the areas hardest hit by the outbreak - faced liability if they did not prohibit allowing a customer to enter a business, or conducted business with a customer if they were not wearing a facial covering in any public space, indoor our outdoors. Violations are a gross misdemeanor and businesses risk fines and losing their business license if they don't comply.
Now that requirement applies to businesses statewide, though a spokesman for Inslee said the focus will be on education and seeking voluntary compliance first.
"We know that we need to mask up so that we can fully open up our economy," Inslee said.
The face covering exemptions under the governor's original order issued last week remain: people who are deaf or have hearing loss and those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing a mask, don't need to don a facial covering, nor do children age 5 and younger. And people engaged in recreation alone or with household members and those eating out at restaurants don't have to wear masks as long as they are properly distanced from others.
The issue of mandating masks has drawn a partisan divide in some areas, though in recent days - as cases of COVID-19 have surged in several states - national GOP officials have pushed back against the notion that masks are about politics.
"This virus does not discriminate between Rs and Ds," Inslee said.
Inslee's updated mask order builds on a previous one in place since June 8 that has required workers to wear facial coverings unless they don't interact with others on the job.
The state has seen large increases of confirmed cases in recent days, and on Thursday, reported 728 new confirmed cases, bringing the statewide total of those who have tested positive for coronavirus to 34,151, with at least 1,342 people deaths.
Secretary of Health John Weisman called the trend "very concerning" and said that the increase in cases can't solely be attributed to more testing. He said that the numbers reflect increased social interactions throughout the state where people aren't abiding by physical distancing or use of masks.
"We are going in the wrong direction," he said.
The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
The state's stay-at-home order expired May 31 and the state's 39 counties have been moving through a phased-in reopening process based on several indicators, including case counts.
As of Thursday, 17 counties are in Phase 3 of reopening, which allows gyms and movie theaters to operate at half capacity, for restaurants to increase capacity to 75% and for group gatherings of up to 50 people, including sports activities. Seventeen counties are currently in Phase 2, which allows restaurants and taverns to reopen at half capacity with limited table sizes, hair and nail salons and barber shops to resume business, and retail stores to reopen for in-store purchases at 30% capacity. It also allows additional outdoor recreation and gatherings with no more than five people outside of a person's household.
Following Inslee's announcement Thursday, the state Department of Health will continue to work with the last three counties that remain in Phase 1 of the state's four-stage reopening plan - Benton, Franklin and Yakima - to move into a "modified" Phase 1 that allows some additional business activity beyond essential businesses and takeout service from restaurants. Weisman said that because the state has already been working with those counties, they could be moved into their new modified stage even as other counties are paused.
Inslee said residents from those counties had been traveling to other less restrictive counties, raising concerns about additional spread of the virus. He said that he hopes by allowing more local activity, plus the increased use of masks, people will stay local.
Yakima County, which has been among the areas hardest hit by the outbreak, had at least 7,270 cases of coronavirus as of Thursday - second-highest among counties in the state - and 159 deaths. King County, which includes Seattle and has nearly 10 times more people, had recorded at least 10,535 cases and 615 deaths.
Two other counties - Chelan and Douglas - are currently the only counties in a modified Phase 1 of reopening.