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Wednesday, May 12, 2021

How the mask mandate looks in Whatcom County

Everything to know about how local jurisdictions are handling the order

By Connor Benintendi

A water fountain at Boulevard Park in Bellingham is covered to prevent individuals from spreading COVID-19 on July 8, 2020.
A water fountain at Boulevard Park in Bellingham is covered to prevent individuals from spreading COVID-19 on July 8, 2020. // Photo by Connor J. Benintendi

Gov. Jay Inslee and state Health Secretary John Weisman’s mask mandate took effect in Whatcom County and statewide on Friday, June 26. Here is how the mask mandate  is evolving in Bellingham and neighboring county communities going forward.

The order requires people to wear a face covering in all indoor spaces and outdoor areas where 6 feet of distance between persons cannot be maintained, according to the Whatcom County Health Department’s website. A full list of public spaces where face coverings are required is also available on the county website.

Inslee also announced on Thursday, July 2, that Washington business owners must turn away customers not wearing a face covering beginning Tuesday, July 7.

Face coverings and masks block droplets that could contain the coronavirus; masks prevent transmission when someone coughs, sneezes or speaks, according to the county website.

“The short story is we’re bringing hospital infection prevention best practices to everywhere,” said Dr. Alex Greninger, assistant director of the UW Medicine Clinical Virology Laboratory. “We do this all the time in the hospital to prevent transmission of organisms, including viruses.”

A study cited in a Whatcom County Health Department Civic Alert from June 26 estimated that only 46% of shoppers in Whatcom County wore a mask or face covering during early June, more than a month after the first COVID-19 death in the county.

The Whatcom County Health Department worked with the Whatcom Unified Command — unified command personnel drawn from every local jurisdiction to combat COVID-19 more efficiently — to provide better information, guidance and resources to the public, according to the WUC Joint Information Center Public Information Officer Amy Cloud.

Increasing the 46% mask-wearing rate falls on individual responsibility, according to Cloud.

“The Health Department cannot make people wear masks,” Cloud said. “That is each individual’s responsibility for the sake of our community’s health and well-being.”

According to the Whatcom County website, refusing to comply with the order is a violation of law, and subject to “criminal penalties,” such as a misdemeanor or fine. However, people are urged to not call 911 to report masklessness. “Enforcement is rarely the best or most desired option,” Cloud said. 

Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy, a former WUC PIO, spoke to KGMI Radio on June 26 about the BPD’s stance on the order. Murphy was unavailable for further comments on the issue.

“Our position is that it’s a health crisis,” Murphy said. “We’re asking people to be responsible, take individual responsibility and wear a mask as it is ordered by the state. This is not a mandate for law enforcement to stop, detain and cite.”

Some people with select medical conditions are exempt from wearing a face covering, such as those whose breathing could become obstructed or those who cannot remove a mask without assistance. More examples of these cases are available here.

One of the professionally designed coronavirus prevention signs at Boulevard Park on July 8, 2020.
One of the professionally designed coronavirus prevention signs at Boulevard Park on July 8, 2020. These can be found at many of Bellingham’s major public parks encouraging safe recreation practices. // Photo by Connor J. Benintendi

“It is our goal to make sure we educate our citizens and help them understand that this is for the betterment of everyone in [Whatcom] County and to mitigate the spread of the virus,” Murphy said.

Whatcom County is, however, encouraging people to report businesses not complying with the order, and can do so via an anonymous report on the Washington State Coronavirus Response website.

According to a press release on the city of Bellingham’s website from June 8, the WUC and Bellingham Chamber of Commerce distributed more than 100,000 disposable masks to businesses as they began reopening in Phase 2.

Cloud said that despite the recent mandate, the WUC does not have plans to distribute more masks; the initial purchase was a beginning supply specifically to remove barriers to reopening.

The Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department is working to make public safety a priority at some of Bellingham’s most popular outdoor areas, said supervisor Lauren Woodmansee.

Woodmansee said that over 50 professionally designed and printed signs promoting mask use and social distancing have been posted around the larger parks in the area, including Boulevard Park, Lake Padden Park, Cornwall Park and Bloedel Donovan Park.

“Bellingham Parks and Rec is one of the original departments in the state that always kept our parks open,” Woodmansee said. “That’s why we’re so adamant that our parks were so important, for mostly well-being.”

Woodmansee said there will not be explicit enforcement, but asks people to do their part to keep others safe.

“There’s a difference between a mandate and a law. Right now, the mask is a mandate,” Woodmansee said. “First it was a suggestion, now the next step is mandate. Who knows, maybe someday it does go to a ‘law.’ I think at that point it would become a police issue.”

The Bellingham Parks and Recreation Department recently wrapped up its Parks Ambassador program on June 27, which taught people about safe recreation at parks on site. In addition, the department has a “Playbook” outlining good recreation practices. 

According to the Civic Alert from June 26, face coverings can cut infection rates in half, or even more, if 80% of the community wear them regularly.

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