It’s a ‘should,’ but not a ‘shall’
WHATCOM — The Whatcom County Health Department issued a directive Monday recommending the use of face coverings in public.
Whatcom County Health Officer Greg Stern stipulated that people in shared workspaces and public places — both outdoor and indoor — should wear face coverings in stores that sell food and beverages; retail stores; restaurant take-out and food businesses; public transportation; and manufacturing, agriculture, and construction workplaces; and outdoors if workers cannot maintain six feet of distance from people they don’t live with. This is to help limit the transmission of the coronavirus as more workplaces and businesses reopen.
The directive is effective Friday, May 22.
Groups exempt from the directive include children under age 2, children under 12 who aren’t supervised by a parent or caregiver, people with physical disabilities that make wearing or removing a face covering difficult; people who are deaf and use facial and mouth movements to communicate; people who have been advised by a medical professional to not wear a face covering; and people who have trouble breathing, or are unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the covering without assistance.
“We do not take these decisions lightly,” said Erika Lautenbach, director of the Health Department, in a remote briefing Monday afternoon. “This is not a requirement. It’s a ‘should’ rather than a shall. We do not have enforcement capability. It is a very strong recommendation for everyone to wear a mask when out in public spaces.”
The Health Department is not focusing the directive on just masks, as it includes all kinds of face coverings, including bandanas, that limit the spread of respiratory droplets that can carry the coronavirus from person to person.
Most of Washington is preparing for phase two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s approach to reopening businesses and modifying physical distancing measures. The second phase applies to new construction, retail, real estate, hair and nail salons, limited restaurant openings, and more. However, only 10 remote counties have been given the green light so far, not Whatcom.
The face mask recommendation is an effort to continue to curb the COVID-19 spread as people begin to leave their homes more.
Lautenbach said masks are a tool that people can use to fight the spread of the virus.
“We do not have good treatment options,” she said. “We do not have a vaccine. But we do have hygiene, we have distancing, we have masks, we have testing, and we have follow-up contact investigations.”
Lautenbach cited a variety of reasons for the timing of the directive. She said it’s helpful for business owners to be able to point to something the Health Department is doing in order to effectively ask customers to wear masks.
“We don’t want them to be put at a competitive disadvantage because they ask their customers to wear masks,” she said.
Furthermore, Lautenbach said masks are very effective at protecting from the spread of COVID-19. She said at least 20 to 25 percent of cases nationwide have been identified without symptoms. This means that even people who feel fine can carry and spread the virus. Masks help prevent this spread.
Whatcom Unified Command will buy and distribute free masks to vulnerable communities and those who cannot afford them. A supply of 100,000 single-use masks will be distributed to local businesses and governments as they reopen. These will be distributed through local Chambers of Commerce.
The face-covering directive is not a requirement, Lautenbach said, and there won’t be any enforcement in place.
“We will not be citing people who are not wearing a mask,” she said. “We also ask that the public not call 911 or call the Health Department with complaints about people not wearing masks. There are reasons why certain people wouldn’t be wearing masks.”