OLYMPIA, Wash. - Gov. Jay Inslee says the state will lift the outdoor mask mandate on Feb. 18, but says masks will still be required indoors for now.
However based on dropping COVID-19 hospitalizations in the state, Inslee said he expects to be able to share a date next week on when indoor masking requirements, including at schools, can be lifted.
"I agree with CDC that today is not the day to totally eliminate masks, but it is a day that is rapidly approaching," Inslee said at a news conference. "Next week, it is my intention to give Washingtonians a date where the mask mandate for public indoor spaces and the mask mandate for schools would be lifted," Inslee said in a news conference. "I believe we will be in a position next week to announce that date. I think that would be helpful for Washingtonians to have a goal and helpful for them to do whatever is necessary for that transition.
Starting Feb. 18, 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.
That same day, the mandate for masks at outdoor events with 500 or more people will lift. Inslee also said that National Guard deployments to help hospitals to assist in non-medical tasks and set up testing sites will draw down soon.
The governor said he was confident that Washington its past its peak of the latest wave of cases fueled by the omicron variant.
"Cases went up like a rocket, and wil go down like a rock," he said.
Hospitalizations rates are still higher than at any other period during the pandemic, he said.
Caution is still advised, but Inslee said the day is coming "fairly soon" when we do not have to have a mask mandate indoors, including in schools.
Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal said in a news release Wednesday he is recommending that the governor and the state Department of Health to change the mask guidance for schools.
"As part of the transition from pandemic to endemic, I believe it is safe and timely to eliminate the statewide masking requirement for students and allow for a decision by local health officials," he said.
Inslee said he is "on the same page" with the superintendent, but wants to see another week of data before choosing a date. He noted that removal of a statewide mandate will not prohibit local health departments from imposing their own masking mandates if they choose.
Stricter masking requirements could still be put into place at lower levels of government, such as by county or workplace.
Washington is one of fewer than ten remaining states with a COVID-19 mask mandate.
In recent days, Democratic governors in several states have ended or set dates to end masking rules in public places or in schools. The White House has also signaled it is beginning to prepare for a less-restrictive phase of the national COVID response.
"We’re making decisions based on the epidemiology of our state, not other states," Inslee said.
As of this week, the state had more than 1.3 million confirmed or probable cases since the start of the pandemic and 11,099 deaths.
More than 80% of the Washington population age 5 and older has received at least one dose of vaccine, and more than 72% 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.
The Associated Press contributed to this story.
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