New Jefferson County order gives teeth to masking rule

Noncompliance a risk for food service permits

PORT TOWNSEND — Restaurants, grocery stores and gas-station delis in Jefferson County must comply with COVID-19 regulations or risk losing their operating permit.

Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, issued an order Tuesday requiring all food service establishments to comply with state-mandated infection-control measures, including face coverings for employees.

“If we’re getting multiple complaints about a particular business as not following the guidelines, then this order gives us the authority to go there and inspect the place,” Locke said in a Wednesday interview.

“If we substantiate the complaint, then we take action, and it’s sort of a series of steps, potentially leading up to permit suspension.”

Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank said voluntary compliance has sufficed in restaurants in the county.

Clallam County had three new cases of COVID-19 reported Wednesday and Jefferson County had none.

The North Olympic Peninsula had 194 confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus since March — 139 in Clallam County and 55 in Jefferson County.

Unthank said the three new cases were household contacts of recent cases.

Clallam County had 29 cases reported in the past week and 47 for the two-week period ending Wednesday.

Jefferson County had one COVID-19 case reported in the past week and four in the past two weeks.

“Really, the primary driver of our current infections has been social gatherings,” Unthank said Wednesday.

“Those don’t lend themselves well to legislation because they’re usually in private settings. So really, we rely a lot on voluntary compliance of avoiding social gatherings.”

Locke said he based the Jefferson County food service order on a similar order enacted in King County.

San Juan County also requires businesses to comply with COVID-19 infection-control measures or face criminal penalties.

“I predict more and more counties will be putting food service establishments on notice that we expect you to follow these guidelines, and if you don’t, there are potentially consequences against your permit,” Locke said.

The Jefferson County order, which took effect Tuesday, affects nearly 300 food service establishments in the county.

It states that plastic face shields are “grossly inadequate” for controlling the highly contagious virus.

“I want to be really clear with people that face shields are not a substitute for masks,” Locke said Wednesday.

“People have gotten a lot of mixed messages on it, but for these food service establishments, it’s just not something that’s allowed because it doesn’t work.”

Inspections will be conducted by Jefferson County health officials as part of their unannounced inspections of food service establishments.

Businesses that generate multiple complaints also will be subject to targeted inspections.

Food service establishments are “big drivers” of COVID-19 transmission around the nation, Locke said.

“Restaurants and grocery stores and convenience stores — these are places where people kind of let down their guard and take off their masks,” Locke said.

“If we want to open our schools, and if we want to move forward economically, we have to control that. We have to do better than we’re doing now.”

Nearly all of the food service establishments in Clallam County have followed state masking directives, Unthank said.

“So far, we haven’t had a lot of food service establishments that aren’t willing to enforce the mandates,” Unthank said.

“We’ll get intermittent calls about kind of individual clients in food service establishments not wearing masks, but we haven’t seen the large numbers of establishments having significant problems with that.”

Given the success of voluntary compliance, Clallam County officials “haven’t felt the need to add an additional law to the books,” Unthank said.

Meanwhile, Unthank announced that a child who attended a Clallam County daycare while infected with COVID-19 did not spread the virus to others at the facility.

“It has been over 14 days since that exposure and not a single child or staff member turned positive,” Unthank said.

“So I think that’s a little bit of good news and a good argument for the power of infection prevention in preventing transmission in those settings.”

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].

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