Masking Matters: How to report face mask violations, plus other guidance for local restaurants

click to enlarge Masking Matters: How to report face mask violations, plus other guidance for local restaurants
Spokane Regional Health District
The health district is helping local restaurants comply with Washington's face-mask mandate.
The scenario: You're wearing a face mask while out running errands as the spread of coronavirus continues to increase across the U.S. Maybe you're grocery shopping or picking up a takeout order from your favorite local restaurant when you encounter others who appear to be openly flouting Washington's statewide face-covering mandate issued back on June 23 and amended on July 24.

Besides keeping a distance of 6 feet or more (and perhaps making a mental note not to patronize the violating establishment again, at least during the pandemic), what other proactive steps can one take?

It's a question many Inlander readers have had lately, so we chatted with experts at the Spokane Regional Health District to find out which local and state agencies are overseeing mask-mandate violations, as well as what businesses, mainly restaurants, are required to do if or when an employee tests positive for COVID-19.

Face coverings are proven to be effective in helping prevent the spread of COVID-19 via respiratory droplets that are released when an infected person coughs, sneezes, speaks or breathes. There are some health-related exemptions to the mask requirement, including for children under age 5 and those with disabilities or medical conditions. As of July 7, businesses in Washington state are ordered to refuse service to anyone not wearing a face covering, excluding those who are exempt (and who can also be accommodated via services such as delivery or curbside pickup).

Health district staff say the majority of local businesses are following the temporary face-covering rule, which is set to remain in place for the foreseeable future. But for those that aren't, violations can be reported by the public in two ways.

In a situation where a business's employees are not wearing face masks while working, the violation should be reported to Washington's Department of Labor and Industries, says the health district's food safety program manager Steve Main. The agency is currently asking people to report such violations online or by phone to 1-800-423-7233.

To report an establishment for not enforcing the face-covering mandate or not following other safety rules in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the public can submit complaints (anonymously if they choose) through the state's coronavirus response website

"Someone will then reach out to the establishment and talk to them," Main says.

If a person reports these incidents directly to the health district, Main says staff will forward the report to the enforcing agency, however doing it yourself can expedite the response process.

click to enlarge Masking Matters: How to report face mask violations, plus other guidance for local restaurants (3)
Spokane Regional Health District
Signage from the health district to encourage mask-wearing, available free to local businesses.
While the health district doesn't have the authority to enforce mask-wearing in restaurants or other businesses, it does oversee the state's Safe Start requirements for local restaurants to have written safety procedures in place addressing sanitation, physical distancing, protective equipment, employee training and screening of employees for symptoms of illness.

"We do education and training and offer guidance materials to businesses as part of our inspection process, and make sure they are in compliance with what the governor has required," says Lisa Breen, food safety environmental health specialist for the district.

"We will also answer any questions and refer [businesses] to other agencies where appropriate," she adds. "If there is non-compliance, we have the option to report to the governor's office, and they will contact the business and do follow-ups and refer to another agency that has enforcement."
Food safety complaints of any level are still being addressed as usual by the health district and its inspectors during the pandemic, Breen notes.

"It's concerning when someone sees a business or food establishment not in compliance," adds Main, "but the establishments we contact have been very responsible overall. Obviously there are a few outliers, but for the most part they are pretty responsive."

Many Spokane-area restaurants have been forthcoming with the community when an employee or recent diner has tested positive for COVID-19, sharing updates on social media that often include when the sick employee last worked, or plans to temporarily close.

Currently, there is no mandate requiring businesses to publicly announce these incidents, Breen says. The health district can offer guidance to any business that's had an employee contract the virus and who worked before knowing they were infected.

Many restaurants with staff who've contracted COVID-19 have also opted, as a precaution, to have all employees tested for the virus. Breen says the only time this step is required, however, is when another person is known to have been in contact with a positive case for 15 consecutive minutes at 6 feet or closer.

"Some feel they needed all staff to be tested, but we're trying to let them know that's not necessary, and they also don't need to require negative test results to employees to come back to work," she says. "If an employee does test positive, they can come back after at least 10 days in isolation, and within 24 hours of being fever-free without needing any fever-reducing medicines."

There's also no rigid requirement that a restaurant or any other business close for any set period of time after learning of a positive case among employees.

"In those instances, it's case-by-case," Main says. "It's dependent upon the number of people exposed and that kind of thing."

Breen adds that since extra sanitation practices are already in place, any areas a positive-testing employee previously worked in should "already have been cleaned and sanitized."

Neither of the food safety experts say there's anything wrong with a restaurant voluntarily opting to close for a few days, have all employees tested or undergo a deep clean; only that there are no broad rules in place to require any of those steps be taken.

Since the state's face-covering mandate has gone into effect, many have taken to both shaming and praising various local businesses on social media for enforcing or not enforcing compliance among staff and customers.

"Rather than shame restaurants or workers or patrons at a restaurant, just highlighting the positive and telling stories of someone doing a really good job, and moving businesses in that direction" is most effective, says health district spokeswoman Kelli Hawkins.

"Those are things that help serve as examples for a business that isn't doing it right," she adds.

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About The Author

Chey Scott

Chey Scott is the Inlander's Arts and Culture Editor and editor of the Inlander's yearly, glossy magazine, the Annual Manual. Chey (pronounced "Shay") is a lifelong resident of the Spokane area and a graduate of Washington State University. She's been on staff at the Inlander since 2012...