The Washington State mask mandate was lifted on March 12, but some businesses are choosing to keep the requirement.
Companies have increased the amount of outdoor air ventilation, social distancing, mask use and vaccination requirements throughout the pandemic to keep workers safe, according to Dr. Martin Cohen, a teaching professor in the Department of Environmental & Occupational Health Sciences at the University of Washington.
Workplaces have used what Cohen describes as a “swiss cheese model.”
“You know that there's a hazard and you know that every control you have in place isn't going to be 100% effective,” Cohen said. “So if you have a bunch of different controls that are like slices of swiss cheese with holes in them and you stack them up, then there's a good likelihood that you're not going to be able to poke a pencil through a single hole.”
Mallard Ice Cream in downtown Bellingham has used this method. Along with their mask requirement that has lasted since the beginning of the pandemic, they have sanitized their space meticulously, used social distancing practices and traded their indoor space for a pick-up window for a period of time.
“We've maintained the mask mandate for the sake of the community,” said Hannah Spencer, the general manager at Mallard Ice Cream. “We're thinking, what does it mean when we encourage you all, to come down here and be together in a big group, and also not wear masks?”
Balancing between the need for safety and community was important to their decision.
However, customer support has not always been pleasant for Mallard Ice Cream’s workers. Mask requirements, vaccines and the COVID-19 pandemic in general have all become polarized political topics.
“Folks were angry,” Spencer said. “We've had tables thrown at us, we've had ice cream thrown at us, we've had people curse us out, we've had people threaten to come back and hurt us over masks, which is just wild.”
Aside from the normal stress of working in food service, many businesses were understaffed, slower than normal and, like Mallard Ice Cream, dealing with a load of supply chain issues.
On top of these stressors, service workers have had the role of being the mask enforcers, putting them at the center of the world’s polarized debate.
“I wish that folks would know that service workers are people first and foremost,” Spencer said.
The effectiveness of masks is something that is often not fully understood by the public, according to Dr. Brandon Guthrie, an epidemiologist and assistant professor of Global Health and Epidemiology at the University of Washington. One thing that is clear, however, is that high-quality masks like N95 respirators and KN95 masks are very effective at protecting the wearer against getting COVID-19 when worn properly, Guthrie said.
Masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health are trusted to protect wearers. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention has information on determining whether a mask is certified or not.
For third-year Western Washington University student Riley McKibbin, wearing a mask in public spaces is a personal choice.
“It seems like the basic mentality now is that it’s up to the individual's comfort level, even though masks don’t really do much for the person wearing them as opposed to being preventative for others,” McKibbin said.
The transition away from mask mandates leaves the future of masks unsure to many people.
“I put my crystal ball away a long time ago so I'm not willing to make predictions at this point,” Guthrie said. “I would not be surprised if we saw shorter term targeted reintroductions of mask requirements.”
The CDC provides a free mask locator for people who are in need of extra protection.
Simone Higashi (she/her) is a third-year News Editorial student and senior reporter for The Front. Simone likes to knit and read in her free time. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.