A statewide order requiring people to wear face masks will help Clallam and Jefferson counties as they move into the next phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 reopening plan, county health officers said Wednesday.
Inslee drew a “bright line” Tuesday when he announced face coverings will be mandated in public areas beginning Friday, Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said.
“He is challenging everyone in the state to take this seriously,” Locke said in a Wednesday interview.
“Too many people have not gotten the message, or not taken it to heart, that this is serious.”
No new coronavirus cases were reported on the North Olympic Peninsula on Wednesday.
The masking order issued by state Secretary of Health John Wiesman requires face coverings when people are indoors in a public area, and outdoors in a public area when 6 feet of physical distancing can’t be maintained.
Children younger than 6 are not required to wear masks and those younger than 2 are exempt from the order, but masks are recommended for kids between 3 and 5.
Jefferson County’s Board of Health and three commissioners have voted to apply to enter Phase 3 of Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan.
Phase 3 allows for larger gatherings and more businesses to reopen.
Locke said the variance application was being finalized and would be transmitted to the state Monday.
“At this point, it looks like we touch all the bases so that Jefferson will get certified and go to Phase 3,” Locke said.
“That’s when the really hard work starts, and I’m glad that the masking mandate really came in before that.”
Locke said face coverings will be “crucial” as the county enters Phase 3.
“If 20 or 30 percent of people are not wearing masks in indoor businesses, that’s just too high a risk,” Locke said.
Clallam County’s Board of Health will discuss a possible Phase 3 variance application and allowance for overnight camping in a special meeting at 1:30 p.m. Tuesday.
County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank she had not yet formed a recommendation for that meeting.
“What I plan to do is really present the data at the meeting and to have the Board of Health discuss it together and come to a decision as a team about whether or not we think it’s smart to move forward at this point,” Unthank said in a Wednesday interview.
Unthank said she understood the need for a state masking requirement.
“We were really hoping that things would stay voluntary and people would come around on this with just some guidance and some education, and it’s been unfortunate to see how many folks have still not been masking in spite of that,” Unthank said.
Unthank said an 80-percent compliance rate for face coverings would be a “good step in the right direction.”
Both health officers said masks had regrettably become a political issue.
“Basically one party is not masking and the other one is, which is unfortunate because it really doesn’t matter what your political party is,” Unthank said. “Everybody needs to mask.”
Locke said he never would have predicted that people would connect their political identity to face coverings. He added that masks are “simple and commonsensical.”
“I’m constantly getting emails where people are arguing that masks don’t work and they’re unproven, and they always cite the same four or five references that are completely discredited,” Locke said.
“But in their minds, that’s what they seem to believe, and it’s this phenomenon where people nowadays just seek out the news they want to believe and ignore everything else.”
Health officials say face coverings help protect others from asymptomatic transmission.
Locke said the research supporting masks is “getting stronger and stronger.”
Most businesses in Clallam and Jefferson counties have been supportive of masking requirements, county health officers said.
“We certainly have had some, unfortunately, that have said ‘Well, I’ll take it seriously when you send me a letter that will fine me,’ ” Unthank said.
“That’s not really how we hope this goes, but we will do that if we need to.”
A spokesman for Inslee said Tuesday that a violation of the statewide mask order is a misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and up to a $1,000 fine.
In Jefferson County, Locke estimated that 70 to 80 percent of citizens who contact the health department are in favor of masking requirements.
“Overwhelmingly, the feedback we get at the health department is positive and asking us, ‘Can you do more to motivate or coerce the people who have not gotten the memo?’ ” Locke said.
“I think especially disturbing to people is visitors to Port Townsend.
“You see a lot of young people clustering and not wearing masks,” Locke added.
“I think, there, we have to somehow make it cool to wear masks. If we can accomplish that, then we’ll get the uptick we’ll need.”
Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.