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Clark County turns the page on masks as state mandate ends

Coverings can come off in most public settings, some businesses, agencies will still require them

By , Columbian staff writer,
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Leah Mulyar, 5, of Vancouver, left, and her sister, Isabel, 7, wear masks while enjoying a book at Vancouver Community Library on March 11, the final day of required indoor masking in Washington.
Leah Mulyar, 5, of Vancouver, left, and her sister, Isabel, 7, wear masks while enjoying a book at Vancouver Community Library on March 11, the final day of required indoor masking in Washington. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

On June 23, 2020, Washington announced a statewide requirement for people to wear masks in public settings to slow the spread of COVID-19. That mandate was lifted in early July 2021 and quickly reinstated during the delta surge.

Today, the mask mandate will be lifted once again, and many in Clark County are hoping that it will mark the beginning of the end of the pandemic.

Others, however, aren’t enthused. Some lost loved ones after the mask mandate was lifted last July. People who are immunocompromised worry that lifting the mask mandate is premature. Some will continue to wear masks in indoor public settings for the foreseeable future.

Masks will still be required in high-risk settings, such as health care, corrections and long-term care facilities. But in most indoor public settings, people will be able to go mask-free today.

Clark County Public Health Director Dr. Alan Melnick said that with cases and hospitalizations continuing to decrease and with the availability of vaccines, boosters and other therapeutic options for those who do catch COVID-19, he’s cautiously optimistic that lifting the mask mandate now is appropriate. He encourages people who are at high-risk for severe disease, and those who are worried, to continue masking and avoid crowded indoor public spaces.

Above all, he recommends that more Clark County residents get vaccinated, and people respect the decisions of others — whether they choose to mask or not.

Here’s a look at how Clark County agencies, businesses and schools will respond.

Schools, libraries

In Clark County’s schools and libraries, the end of the statewide mask mandate is expected to be met with mixed emotions — but an overall understanding that those who choose to continue wearing masks are welcome to do so.

Craig Birnbach, spokesman for Evergreen Public Schools, said the district has no shortage of masks and additional personal protective equipment for students and staff who may continue to request them — a concern that Evergreen Education Association President Bill Beville had voiced last month.

“Most staff members are glad that we’re at this point, in the sense that the numbers are down and we’re trending in such a good direction and that we know getting back to a more normal or traditional school environment is good for our students,” Birnbach said. “I hate that word, ‘normal.’ We just want people to feel comfortable in whatever they choose.”

Throughout February, a string of small groups of students in Ridgefield, Battle Ground and elsewhere led a few dozen students in protest against the mask mandate, advocating for the freedom of choice for students attending public schools.

Emalee Bowers, 11, of Camas, said she doesn’t think much will change for her.

“If you’re more comfortable with it or without it, that’s OK,” she said. “Whatever floats your boat, you know?”

Bowers was among a dozen or so children perusing books on the top floor of the Vancouver Community Library on Friday afternoon. In line with the new state guidelines, FVRLibraries will allow patrons to go without masks while indoors.

“It will be a relief to not have to be the mask police,” said Thia Levesque, a senior library assistant at the Vancouver Community Library. “I appreciated it while it was happening and for the reasons it was happening, but I think it’s probably time. The important thing is that it’s still a choice, whoever wants to keep wearing it can keep wearing it.”

Clark County businesses

SEH America, a local manufacturer of silicon wafers for semiconductors, isn’t eliminating its mask mandate just yet. The company doesn’t want to take masks off just to have to put them on again if there’s a surge, said Pat McDonnell, vice president of operations.

“We’re just going to stay consistent for a while,” he said, adding the company expects to review the policy again in the first part of April.

“We operate seven days a week, 24 hours a day,” McDonnell said. “We’re very dependent on having our workplace really be safe, so we are just going to be cautious.”

Pedigo, a Vancouver-based health equipment manufacturing company, plans to “follow the most up-to-date guidance and guidelines,” said Paul Andrewjeski, customer service manager. Until now, the company has made an effort to follow what’s happening with the rule changes and communicate that to employees.

Staff and guests at Beaches Restaurant and Bar, 1919 S.E. Columbia River Drive, will no longer be required to mask up.

“Everybody’s pretty excited to take the mask off,” said proprietor Mark Matthias, mentioning that guests haven’t really had to wear them anyway, because they’re eating.

“Although, if I have a team member who still wants to wear it for their own viewpoints, then we’re going to allow that,” he added.

Local government

When city and county offices open for business Monday morning, visitors and staff are likely to see few changes in effect. Some jurisdictions await further clarification from the state’s Labor and Industries office before changing business hours and availability, for others, it’s business as usual.

Steve Stuart, city manager for Ridgefield, said the only notable difference will be that masks are no longer required to enter public buildings. City staff also won’t be required to wear masks while in the office.

“The city of Ridgefield’s offices have been open to the public for a number of months now,” Stuart said.

Ridgefield City Council won’t be changing its meeting format either, which has been a hybrid of in-person and virtual meetings. Stuart said the council plans to continue that format for the foreseeable future.

“Except for maybe one or two meetings where there was a specific outbreak, our council has had in-person meetings for months. They’ve seen it’s a good opportunity for people to participate that might not be able to otherwise,” Stuart said.

Among those waiting for further guidance from Washington’s Labor and Industries are Clark County and the cities of Vancouver and La Center.

“We want to make sure we’re doing what they advise,” said Joni McAnally, communications specialist for Clark County.

The Clark County Council considered resuming in-person meetings in January but decided to hold off on making the change until after the rise in omicron cases had subsided. The council is expected to revisit the discussion in the coming weeks.

Clark County Public Health is also holding off reopening its public areas.

“We’re holding steady for now,” said Marissa Armstrong, senior communications specialist.

Armstrong said many of Public Health’s staff have been working remotely, although there are some staff members who work in the field or come into the office periodically. But the agency won’t be opening its doors to the public just yet.

“Our offices, like our vital records office and our environmental public health office that have public areas, those are going to remain closed to the public for now. We’ll be re-evaluating that in the coming weeks,” Armstrong added.

Those visiting Vancouver City Hall won’t have to wear a mask in the building. All city employees, on the other hand, are encouraged to wear a mask until the city receives further guidance on mask requirements.

There will also be more opportunities to use City Hall lobby services, such as submitting permit applications or paying parking tickets, when its hours of operation are extended beginning March 28, said Laura Shepard, city communication director.

The Vancouver City Council anticipates hosting its first in-person meeting that same day, which is still subject to the state’s labor regulations. The gatherings will be broadcast live through Clark/Vancouver Television and the city’s Facebook page for those who can’t join in at City Hall.

Criminal justice

Visitors to the Clark County Courthouse will also no longer be required to mask up. Superior and District Court administrations made masks optional, except for those who have been exposed to COVID-19 or who are immunocompromised.

Superior Court Judge Derek Vanderwood said the court felt comfortable following in the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s footsteps after consulting Clark County Public Health.

Some pandemic-fueled operational changes still remain in effect, such as conducting hearings via Zoom. The remote hearings mean fewer people are in the courthouse, so Vanderwood said that helps some feel more comfortable.

Courthouse officials are discussing which hearings will continue to be held virtually going forward.

Clark County Prosecutor Tony Golik said he’s looking forward to seeing the faces of defendants, judges and jurors again. His office will also make masks optional beginning next week. He said trials have been especially difficult, and it’s tough to litigate a case to a jury whose faces are covered.

Masks will still be required inside the Clark County Jail, and sheriff’s deputies will continue to mask up in places where they are required, such as hospitals and care facilities, Sgt. Brent Waddell said.

People will not have to wear masks inside the sheriff’s office’s precincts, but the agency has not yet reopened the west precinct in Ridgefield.

Vancouver police officers will follow city policy and continue to mask indoors or with others until policies are updated, department spokeswoman Kim Kapp said. That means they’ll continue to mask while transporting suspects or in public areas.

Anyone walking into a Vancouver police precinct will no longer have to wear a mask.

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