Last Thursday, Washington State Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the state will no longer require masks to be worn in indoor environments, which officially begin on March 21st. Yes, after two years of masking, it looks like there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Yet, while the removal of the mask mandate has certainly been presented, to quote Inslee, as “good news,” the announcement at the news conference on February 17 was not a permanent light, but a pure political maneuver.
Inslee displayed insensitivity and cowardice, overlooked the painful experiences of many over the past two years and capitulated to the pressure that has been placed on him since the beginning of his term.
At the press conference, Inslee praised the declining rates of infection and hospitalization, arguing that it was finally time to move one step closer to normalcy. He was joined by leaders from the state Department of Health.
“The virus has changed markedly over the last two years, and so has our ability to fight it,” Inslee told the news conference. “While caution is still needed, we are entering a new phase of the pandemic.”
Unfortunately, this decision seems strangely familiar, leading to doubts about its longevity.
Last May, Inslee had taken a similar political step, removing the mask mandate for vaccinated people. This effort lasted only until August, before it was reinstated because the number of COVID-19 cases began to increase further.
It seems that Inslee has forgotten the past. Although vaccination rates have grown since the summer of last year, it would be absurd not to be in doubt about this announcement. In fact, the removal may even lead to a stronger increase in COVID-19 cases, as was the case last summer with the arrival of the delta variant.
But what makes these comments really insensitive is that this decision was made at a time when the threats from COVID-19 are still real.
Although it has been over a month since the omicron variant peaked in Washington, this new variant has continued to spread rapidly and has led to many hospitalizations, similar to the peak of the Delta variant last year.
Inslee even acknowledged this fact at the press conference and admitted that it would be catastrophic to remove the mask mandate now.
“To those who think it might end sooner, all I can tell you is that we lost 1,000 people in January to this disease,” Inslee said. “And when we make decisions, it seems to me that we should have a realization of how dangerous and deadly this disease still is after this period.”
But if Inslee was really serious about this claim, he would wait to make that statement until he was sure that this decision was based on real data and not projections.
People are still afraid of the omicron variant and the number of cases present in Washington. The announcement made on Thursday respects and seeks to invalidate this fears and concerns. These people need solid data to give them confidence, not projections of what COVID-19 numbers may be in March.
Of course, I can not predict the effects that a solution of the mask mandate may have on the rate of hospitalization and infection. I trust that Inslee’s health advisers have done the necessary research to predict these effects and that this decision is a strict adherence to the research.
I know, however, that this mandate will further spur controversy and confusion. One can simply look at the divisive school board meetings over masks in states that have recently removed their mandates to see this.
Gov. Inslee claims that we are entering a “new phase of the pandemic.” But what does that really mean? Hospital admissions and infection rates are declining, but anxiety and confusion surrounding the pandemic are still as strong as before.
Do I continue to wear a mask? Do my teachers’ children, who are under vaccination age, wear masks? Does Gonzaga University require students to wear masks? These are the questions we now have to answer for ourselves.
Inslee’s announcement sets a goal for schools and small businesses that continue to have mesh mandates. These places will no longer be able to hide behind the state; they will be completely vulnerable to attacks by anti-mask advocates.
Inslee again addressed this and doubled its position that schools and small businesses are allowed to have mask requirements upon entry. Yet this response is pathetic, especially given the stress these companies and schools are already facing while simply trying to stay open during a pandemic.
To be clear, this is not a pro-mask or anti-mask argument. This is a demand that Inslee reconsider how the state is shifting away from pandemic life. The announcement was premature, poorly timed and did not provide the necessary reflection on the long-term impact of the pandemic.
To quote Inslee, “it’s been a long, long way.” Further, it has been a road of loss, struggle and confusion. The removal of the mask mandate not only ignores this, but it will fuel more fighting, confusion and even loss.