Gov. Jay Inslee says he wants to eventually get rid of his COVID mandates, but even he doesn't yet know when

click to enlarge Gov. Jay Inslee wears a mask bearing the logo of the university where his vaccine mandate would eventually get the coach fired. - OFFICE OF THE GOVERNOR PHOTO
Office of the Governor photo
Gov. Jay Inslee wears a mask bearing the logo of the university where his vaccine mandate would eventually get the coach fired.

On Sunday, Washington got rid of its indoor mask mandate for the vast majority of circumstances. That's Washington, D.C., to be clear.

Washington state however? It remains one of only four states to have a mask mandate in all public indoor locations.

At a press conference last week, one reporter pointed to how few other states had mandates, and asked Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee what threshold the state had to meet to unmask again.

"Other states have taken other courses, I recognize that. We call those second-class states," Inslee says. "Because Washington state is a first-class state, we're a state that believes that we outta save lives."

While Inslee quickly retracted the dig at "second-class states," he stood by the substance of his comparison. After all, Washington still has the seventh-lowest per-capita COVID death toll in the country. And two of the states with an even lower death rate, Hawaii and Oregon, also still have universal mask mandates.

"Some of these other states that are going the course you suggested, they have fatality rates two and three times higher than ours," Inslee said.

Inslee plans to eventually, hopefully, lift the restrictions — not just the mask mandate, but possibly his vaccine mandates as well. But that depends on a lot of factors.

"If — and I hope that we will reach this date — the infection rate is low enough, and the vaccination rate is high enough, and the hospital capacity is high enough, and the medical therapeutic situation is good enough, the mandates are not necessary," Inslee says. "Every time somebody gets vaccinated, that day gets closer."

But by now, Inslee's critics point out, he's been operating with special powers under his self-declared state of emergency for more than 630 days.

"There's been a deliberate decision not to set a bunch of goalposts out there," says Jon Snyder, Inslee's outdoor recreation adviser, "based on how unpredictable the virus has been."

So for now, to extend that Inslee-style sports metaphor, we've been stuck in a kind of indefinite overtime, with no game clock or clear touchdown line telling us when it's going to end. Neither the crowd stuck in the stands nor the players on the field know what's going to happen next.

Standing with Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward in the Spokane Pavilion on June 30, Inslee was ready to celebrate.

For nearly a year, Inslee had tied his COVID restrictions to one reopening metric after another, laying out detailed thresholds of hospital admission rates, test positivity rates, case counts and, eventually, vaccination levels that counties needed to meet.

And finally, he set out June 30 as the date for a full-state reopening: Washington state was on the "two-yard line," he'd determined, so the state was going to open "no matter what."

In Spokane, the governor cheered the return of Hoopfest, the region's beloved 3-on-3 basketball tournament, referring to it as the highest peak of "human civilization."

At first, Inslee allowed himself some swagger. In July, when asked if there needed to be reform to his emergency powers, he responded, "I'm not sure I want to reform a system that won the Super Bowl." Republicans were furious, accusing him of "spiking the football."

But then Washington state, like the rest of the country, was hit with the full force of the delta variant, a far more contagious mutation of COVID. Hospitals in Spokane and North Idaho were overwhelmed. The daily COVID death toll in Washington state reached a record high in September.

Hoopfest was canceled for the second year in a row.

"We thought we were in one spot in June, and then by August we were in another spot," Snyder says.

That experience — loosening restrictions only to have to crack down again two months later — looms over current debates.

Snyder stresses that the governor didn't reimpose some of the toughest restrictions — no capacity limits or business shutdowns. Instead, Inslee reimposed mask mandates regardless of vaccination status, applying it to not just schools and indoor businesses, but to large outdoor events. And he told health care workers, teachers and state employees — even Washington State University's football coach — to get vaccinated or be fired. Some asked for exemptions. Many didn't get them.

Still, Washington has largely avoided the delta death toll that mandate-averse states like Idaho have suffered. While over 9,100 people have died in Washington state of COVID, if it had Idaho's death rate at least 7,200 more — over 16,300 — Washingtonians would be dead today. As cases have soared and deaths have stacked up in Colorado, public health officials have pleaded with the state's Democratic governor to reimpose a statewide mask mandate.

"Where we are in November of 2021 is actually very similar to where we were in November of 2020," says Umair Shah, Inslee's health secretary. "What we do not want to see is this lead into an uptick into a sixth wave."

At this moment, the bad news and the good news have all intersected to make predictions particularly difficult.

Some of Inslee's new mandates — like showing proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test to attend large events — only officially took effect this month, Snyder points out.

At the same time, three new weapons are arriving to fight off the delta variant.

"Where we are in November of 2021 is actually very similar to where we were in November of 2020."

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First: The Pfizer vaccine was approved for children ages 5 to 12 at the end of October — crucial to allowing schools to return to normal without as many worries about outbreaks and quarantines.

Second: Just last week, the FDA approved vaccine booster shots for all adults — allowing thousands to refresh their immunity, a lifesaver for the older Americans who can still be imperiled as their immunity wanes over time.

Third: Anti-COVID pills are almost here. A recent Pfizer study of the company's new antiviral pills found that the drug could reduce the rate of COVID hospitalizations and deaths for even unvaccinated people by nearly 90 percent.

The pills are not quite as miraculous as the vaccine: They don't reduce infection rates, and they need to be taken within three to five days of the first symptoms. By the time a patient is sick enough to be hospitalized — say, the sort of patient who dismisses COVID as nothing worse than the flu — it may be too late.

Still, the Biden administration has already ordered enough pills for 10 million patients.

"We're at a very tenuous place. Our hospitals are at 90 percent occupancy," says Lacy Fehrenbach, Washington state's deputy secretary for COVID response. "Antivirals will help us bring that down."

But it adds a whole host of new variables for public health officials to weigh: How soon will the antivirals be approved by the FDA? How readily available will they be distributed? Will the pills be politicized as deeply as the vaccines?

"We understand the desire for certainty of the future. It would help us a lot if we had certainty about the future," says Mike Faulk, a spokesman for Inslee. "I don't think anybody really imagined or wanted to imagine this point in 2021."

The desire to end the mandates is bipartisan. The question is when and how.

"If we get a sustained plateau at a low level, absolutely the restrictions should come off," says state Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, a Democrat from Spokane. "The signs are encouraging."

He suggests that the vaccine mandates should allow a rigorous testing option as an alternative, a little like President Joe Biden's proposed vaccine requirements would.

Meanwhile, Washington state House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, a Republican from Yelm, argues that Inslee should leave the mandates to local governments.

"One of the realities is it's already become regionalized," Wilcox says. "There's their state mandates, but big parts of the state aren't observing it. Large parts of every county are kind of making their own rules."

That's true, as anyone who walks into a bar in Stevens County or a coffee shop in Seattle can tell you.

The trouble is, it's the places most likely to be enthusiastic about the mandates that appear to need them the least.

The New York Times pointed out this month that daily COVID hospitalization numbers for those who've been vaccinated in Seattle have been half the typical rate of flu hospitalizations in most years. About 90 percent of those in King County over age 12 have received their first vaccine dose.

The counties that voted most heavily against Inslee have, on average, suffered the worst COVID death tolls — a correlation that has become much clearer in the last six months. Stevens County and Spokane County, for example, have suffered more than twice the rate of COVID deaths as King County.

But Wilcox argues that you have to look at the costs of the mandates too: Take the vaccine mandates on Washington state employees: They've been extremely successful at driving vaccinations — 92 percent of Washington state employees have been vaccinated as of Nov. 8.

Yet over 1,800 decided they'd rather quit or be fired than get vaccinated — and that doesn't include health care employees and those in schools and universities. Those losses can exacerbate existing staffing shortages.

"A lot of the resignations and forced firings were concentrated in the Department of Transportation," Wilcox says. "So what is going to happen during winter weather closures?"

And Wilcox has another, more long-term, concern: He wants to change the law to require a governor to ask the Legislature every 30 or 60 days for permission to continue operating in a state of emergency.

"In a well-functioning government, there's no one that doesn't have handcuffs," Wilcox says.

Billig notes that Inslee still has had to get approval from legislative leaders in both parties before passing emergency executive orders that suspend the law, but Billig says he agrees that some kind of reform to the governor's emergency powers are necessary,

"I don't think anybody had a pandemic in mind when these emergency powers were created," Billig says.

The state Senate Democrats, however, rejected a number of Republican proposals to constrain Inslee's proposals during last year's legislative session, and Billig doesn't detail exactly which reforms he has in mind.

For Inslee advisers like Snyder, the end of the days when they're the ones making choices between lives and livelihoods couldn't come sooner.

"I am so ready to give up my power on this," Snyder says, with a weary chuckle. It's just that the pandemic needs to end first.

It's not like this is some sort of game to Inslee, where he's imposing restrictions just for kicks.

"This isn't fun," Inslee said at last week's press conference. "We don't do this for frivolous recreational pursuits. We do it because it's saving lives." ♦

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...