Heidi Stuhl of Bellingham wears a facemask as she visits downtown Lynden on Tuesday. (Calvin Bratt/Lynden Tribune)

Amid rising virus cases, state orders  wearing masks in indoor public places, outside if within 6 feet 

  WHATCOM ­— Facemasks became mandatory attire for people while in public on Friday, June 26. 

  Washington state issued the public health order last week against the backdrop of increasing cases of the COVID-19 virus, especially in a younger age group, and as places of business were starting to reopen under the state’s phased approach.

  The face covering requirement applies “in indoor public places and outdoors where you cannot maintain six feet of distance from other people,” the state Department of Health said in its Friday Joint Information Center  Daily Bulletin.

  Whatcom County Health Officer Dr. Greg Stern added his backing of the new order. 

  “We know it may be disturbing to some in our community who do not routinely wear face coverings. We’d hoped that many people would choose to wear masks voluntarily, because they work to protect others and keep the virus from spreading,” Stern said.

  “However, we also know from years of public health practice that mandates work to encourage people to adopt healthy behaviors. When we look at seat belt use or texting and driving or the reduction in smoking, mandates all had a big role in promoting healthy habits,” Stern said in a press release. 

  Violation of the face-covering order amounts to a criminal misdemeanor.

  However, as questions about how the order would actually be enforced arose last week, law enforcement agencies said they would not be citing individuals for non-compliance.

  Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo noted that the state has also said, separately, that “it [the Secretary’s Order] is not a mandate for law enforcement to detain, cite or arrest violators.”

  For a number of reasons, Elfo said, it is not practical, without aggravating circumstances, for deputies to arrest people who are not wearing face masks. When confronted with violations, deputies will continue to use successful strategies educating on disease control and seeking voluntary compliance, he said.

  Chief Steve Taylor said the Lynden Police Department agrees with a statement put out by the Washington State Patrol and the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs.

  “We will encourage voluntary compliance, but will not be citing individuals for non-compliance,” Taylor said. “I would encourage people on both sides of this issue to continue to be patient and tolerant with each other.”

  The police chief said he has taken calls from people who, due to medical conditions, should not be wearing a mask, and the state’s order exempts people in those situations. “We don’t always know our neighbor’s story when we see them in the grocery store with or without a mask. Let’s be quick to extend grace, and slow to anger,” Taylor said.

  The Washington State Patrol said education and engagement will continue to be its emphasis. “The statewide face covering order is a public health and safety measure. It is not a mandate for law enforcement to detain, cite or arrest violators but rather an evidence-based and safety-focused directive meant to slow the spread of a potentially deadly disease.”

  But individual choices about mask use and safe behavior will affect how soon Whatcom County moves out of Phase 2 into Phase 3 of reopening, said health officer Stern. “In the absence of a cure or vaccine, masks, hand-washing and sanitation, and physical distancing are currently the only known effective barriers to the spread of COVID-19,” he said.

  Earlier last week, Gov. Jay Inslee required face coverings just in Yakima County as it battles the state’s most severe surging of the coronavirus. That measure is stricter than the statewide action, requiring businesses to refuse service to those not wearing face coverings.

  Whatcom County got into Phase 2 on June 5. Since then, the COVID-19 case count has climbed almost to levels in March although deaths have been averted — none at all in June, and still at 40 total.

  Confirmed cases are now highest in the age category 20-39, at 33 percent of all cases.

  In order to be eligible for Phase 3, Washington counties must maintain a new case count of no more than 25 cases per 100,000 residents over the previous two weeks. As of data from June 21, Whatcom County’s 14-day average was 28.9 confirmed cases per 100,000 residents. This number included more than 50 newly confirmed cases over four days.

  However, the case rate is dropping. Raw numbers were at 9 per day, a total of 44 cases, for the five days through Saturday, June 27. 

  For getting to Phase 3, Whatcom County is meeting the metric for healthcare system readiness and is close to the target on testing capacity in the county.