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Sept. 26, 2021

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Clark County school districts, businesses take Inslee’s mask announcement in stride

By , Columbian staff writer,
, Columbian business reporter,
, Columbian staff writer, and
, Columbian Metro Editor
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3 Photos
Kindergartner Tiffany Chang briefly drops her mask to enjoy a socially-distanced snack after recess at Eisenhower Elementary School in May. All students and staff will need to wear masks when the school year starts.
Kindergartner Tiffany Chang briefly drops her mask to enjoy a socially-distanced snack after recess at Eisenhower Elementary School in May. All students and staff will need to wear masks when the school year starts. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

Students and staff in K-12 schools statewide will continue to be legally required to wear masks as protection from COVID-19 under a mandate announced Wednesday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

The directive, which was paired with a request that all vaccinated Washington residents consider wearing masks in indoor areas, came following federal guidance for mask-wearing in areas with elevated levels of COVID-19 activity. A previous state health order requiring all those who are unvaccinated to wear masks indoors remains in effect.

With reports of 302 new confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19 on July 22 — double the 151 new cases reported July 15 — Clark County has been flagged as having “substantial” disease transmission by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

New data from the past week is scheduled to be released today by Clark County Public Health.

While the guidance is advisory only for vaccinated individuals outside of schools, mask wearing is mandatory in the educational system. Inslee added that he will re-evaluate the requirements as students prepare to return to class. Many Clark County school districts begin classes Aug. 31.

Continuing to mandate masks in schools didn’t come as a surprise for local district leaders Wednesday. That’s because back in May, part of the state Department of Health’s summer 2021 and 2021-22 school year guidance required that masks be worn by all staff and students inside school buildings.

It also emphasized that schools plan for full-time in-person instruction for all students, along with mandatory ventilation, cleaning and disinfecting, and plans to respond to COVID-19 cases.

Mike Merlino, superintendent of Evergreen Public Schools, said he felt reassured the Washington Department of Health continued to emphasize that schools should have five days a week in-person instruction this fall. Evergreen was Clark County’s only district to remain at twice-a-week hybrid instruction this spring when neighboring districts advanced to four or five days per week.

Merlino also stressed how often news surrounding guidance in schools remains fluid, which was the case last school year.

“My guess is we’re in this for a while,” Merlino said. “Hopefully, the case numbers start to decline and I think everybody wants staff and kids in schools without masks. But you know what? We do what we’re directed to do.”

Larry Delaney, president of the Washington Education Association, applauded Inslee’s announcement.

“WEA believes every student has the right to a safe, equitable education, including students with health conditions or disabilities,” Delaney said in a statement. “Keeping students, staff, and our community safe from COVID takes following public health guidance for social distancing, vaccination, and masking. We must all work together to ensure that our schools are safe.”

Business reaction

The updated guidance appeared to get a mixed reaction from Clark County businesses, with most expressing support for public health and safety measures but stopping short of reinstating customer mask requirements without a direct government mandate.

Vancouver Mall General Manager Tracey Peters said the mall would encourage shoppers to follow the CDC and county guidelines but would not change its current mask-wearing policies, which do not require customers to wear masks in the common areas of the mall. Individual retailers and restaurants can set their own policies, she said.

Rick Takach, CEO of Vancouver-based hotel management company Vesta Hospitality, said he has generally relied on the standards set by the brands in the company’s portfolio when it comes to mask rules, as well as guidance from the American Hotel and Lodging Association.

The new public health guidelines will likely lead to reinstated masking rules for hotel team members, he said, but probably not for customers unless a jurisdiction issues a direct mandate, such as the one Los Angeles County instituted earlier this month. It’s difficult to predict the impact that the new guidance could have on the hospitality industry, he said, which is already in a precarious place.

“I don’t think our business can handle another shutdown,” he said. “I really don’t.”

Travel traffic is rebounding, but it’s being driven more by leisure trips than business groups, he said, which is already prompting concerns about whether business will remain strong in the winter months. The new mask guidance — and the fact that the delta variant is picking up steam in the middle of the summer, when coronaviruses typically spread more slowly — creates a great deal of uncertainty.

James Bean, co-owner of the two Craft Cannabis shops in Clark County, said his stores would operate to be “mirroring” the recommendations of public health officials. The staff are also fully vaccinated, he added.

Elie Kassab, owner of Battle Ground Cinema parent company Prestige Theatres, said the multiplex would tighten its mask rules after previously relaxing them so that only employees were required to wear masks.

“We believe it’s safer for everybody to wear a mask,” he said. “We are going to respectfully ask all of our customers to wear their masks.”

The impact on construction job sites is likely to be minimal, because most workers don’t operate in crowded indoor spaces, according to Andrea Smith, communications and education program manager at the Building Industry Association of Clark County.

There may be some exceptions when it comes to carpooling to job sites or working on sites where there are many subcontractors on the job simultaneously, she said.

“The only feedback I’ve heard so far is that members are ‘rolling with the punches’ at this point and are frustrated that rules keep changing — though I think that’s how everyone’s feeling at this point,” she wrote in an email.

Mychal Dynes, co-owner of Little Conejo in Vancouver, said the restaurant’s crew began masking up again in response to the new guidelines, but hasn’t extended that rule to customers.

“I’m just happy that we haven’t lost any (seating) capacity,” he said. “I think that’s really what we’re all truly afraid of.”

Vancouver-based marketing intelligence company ZoomInfo is following local guidelines at each of its national offices, according to communications manager Rob Morse. In Vancouver, that means employees have been notified that masks are required in the office, he said. The office has been operating on a hybrid work model, he said, and only vaccinated staff have returned from remote work.

Public facilities

In Vancouver, leaders haven’t yet decided what the governor’s announcement will mean at City Hall. For other city facilities, including recreation centers and pools, Vancouver will continue to ask (but not require) that unvaccinated patrons wear face masks. All visitors, regardless of vaccination status, are asked to maintain social distancing protocols.

“As the pandemic and the science that drives decisions on guidelines is ever-changing, the city is reviewing the latest health information and masking recommendations,” said Vancouver Communications Director Cara Rene.

Beginning today, the Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries will ask all patrons — but not require — visiting their branches to wear masks, said Tak Kendrick, spokesperson for FVRL. He also added that all FVRL staff are required to wear masks while working starting today.

Clark County issued a statement Wednesday saying that employees and visitors entering county buildings are subject to state guidance regarding face coverings: People not fully vaccinated must wear masks in county buildings. Anyone who is fully vaccinated against COVID-19 is strongly encouraged to wear a face covering but not required to do so

Additionally, the Clark County Council has decided to not return to in-person meetings on Aug. 1 as originally planned. The council will continue with virtual meetings through August and re-evaluate at that point.

West Columbia Gorge Humane Society in Washougal is only open the public by appointment but continued to ask patrons and volunteers to wear masks after the mask mandate was lifted for vaccinated individuals at the end of June, according to Delaney Edison, director of operations at the shelter. The shelter isn’t making any changes to its policy in light of recent recommendations.

The Humane Society for Southwest Washington in east Vancouver reopened to the public for limited hours daily in early July, according to Columbian archives. At the time face masks were optional for vaccinated visitors. No updates were available as of press time.

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