OLYMPIA — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has brought back a statewide mask requirement and ordered all public, private and charter school employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine as subject to their employment.
The governor’s announcement Wednesday comes as cases of COVID-19 cases surge and Washington’s hospitals fill up, even as the state contends with a shortfall of health care staffers.
The indoor mask mandate is effective on Aug. 23 and includes those vaccinated and unvaccinated, according to Inslee’s office. Exemptions to the mask requirement are limited to office spaces not easily accessible to the public and small, private indoor gatherings where everyone is vaccinated.
Those working alone indoors with no public face-to-face interaction are also exempt.
The state mandate arrives as some local health officials — like in King County, and just a few hours earlier on Wednesday, in Pierce County — have announced their own mask requirements.
As cases rose and the delta variant surged in Washington, Inslee earlier this month ordered most state workers — and hundreds of thousands of health care employees — to be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or lose their jobs.
Wednesday’s order expands that requirement to K -12 educators, school staff, coaches, bus drivers, school volunteers and others working in school facilities who will have to be fully vaccinated by the same date. Higher-education staff and contractors also fall under the mandate, as well as certified, licensed and contracted early learning and child-care providers.
License-exempt employees in early learning, child-care and youth-development programs also fall under the vaccine mandate. Those who refuse will lose their jobs unless they qualify for medical or religious exemptions.
Tribal schools are not included in the vaccine mandate.
The governor’s announcement comes about a week after state schools superintendent Chris Reykdal sent him a letter “strongly encouraging” him to include school employees in his sweeping order requiring state employees and health care workers to be vaccinated or risk losing their jobs.
Medical and religious exemptions apply for all workers under this mandate, including school employees.
In recent weeks there’s been a push by national and local elected officials, health experts and teachers union leadership to require a vaccine mandate for school employees. At Wednesday’s news conference, Inslee became the third governor in the country to require some sort of vaccine proof for school employees. Although Inslee’s order has been the most stringent.
Last week, California Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered private- and public-school employees to either show proof of vaccinations or be subject to weekly testing. About two weeks ago, Hawaii Gov. David Ige included teachers in his proclamation that requires state and county workers to show proof of vaccination or be tested regularly.
But just the opposite is taking place in some southern states. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis issued an order prohibiting school districts from requiring face coverings for students. Tennessee, Texas and Arkansas are also attempting to block local mask mandates in schools.
The largest school district in Washington has taken its own steps toward a vaccine requirement. Seattle Public Schools is requiring all employees who aren’t represented by a union to be vaccinated as a condition of employment, according to an email interim Superintendent Brent Jones sent employees last week. Employees have until Oct. 18 to become fully vaccinated. Limited medical and religious exemptions will be allowed.
Of the Seattle district’s 11,685 employees, 3,447 — or about 29% — are not represented by a union. Jones encouraged union employees to follow suit and has directed staff to immediately begin bargaining so this requirement will apply to all employees.
Seattle Education Association is currently in bargaining and has come out in support of a vaccination requirement. Unions can bargain with school districts to negotiate time off to receive the vaccine and recover from symptoms of the vaccine, Inslee said.
Many state colleges and universities have mandated vaccines for students and staff, but with broad exemption clauses that allow people to opt out for personal or philosophical reasons. Last week, the University of Washington reversed part of its exemptions to no longer allow students to claim personal or philosophical reasons, citing an increased threat of the delta variant.
Like Inslee’s earlier vaccine mandate for state workers, the public-sector unions — which are some of Democrats’ biggest political allies in Olympia — are expected to bargain with the state over the new requirements.
The new vaccine requirements will impact bus drivers, paraeducators, grounds and maintenance crew, those who work in nutrition services and administrative staff, Service Employees International Union Local 925 spokesperson Binah Palmer said.
SEIU 925 signed on to a letter with other unions — including the Washington Education Association — declaring their intent to bargain, according to Palmer.
“We’re polling members to see what their priorities are in the event that vaccines are required in their workplaces, so bargaining will be based on some of the results we get,” Palmer wrote in an email before the announcement.
The new mandates have also brought the return of protests — widely seen last year in Olympia — against Inslee’s emergency orders and government restrictions due to the pandemic.
On Friday, a few hundred protesters rallied against vaccine mandates at the Capitol campus, followed by a smaller crowd Monday.
Three more demonstrations could materialize in the coming days, according to state officials, including one Wednesday afternoon.