Washington state’s newest relaxation of COVID-19 mask guidance may represent a return to normal, but new mandates requiring employees to prove their vaccination status before working unmasked is facing blowback from Republican lawmakers.
Under the May 21 proclamation, businesses may allow employers to remove their masks if they prove they’re fully vaccinated with a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination card, a photo of the card or documentation from a health care provider of the state’s immunization information system. Employees can also sign a document attesting to their vaccination status.
Last week, House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, called on the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) to immediately rescind what he called an “unworkable policy.”
“Forcing employers to ask and record this personal medical decision violates employee privacy and is fundamentally wrong,” he said in a statement. “Once again, the executive branch is making unilateral decisions and advancing poorly constructed COVID-related policies.”
Employers who do allow employees to remove masks must “be able to demonstrate” to L&I that they have verified vaccination status. According to the agency, employers can use a log, check vaccination status daily or mark workers’ badges. But if the policy proves too sticky, businesses can also choose to keep their mask policies in place, opting out of tracking anybody’s vaccination status.
Senate Minority Leader John Braun, of Centralia, also lambasted the new rules, saying Washingtonians are “viewing it as another example of the same distrust and mismanagement seen from the executive branch for most of the past year — and a new way for government to control their lives.”
He questioned why businesses could implement an honor system for allowing vaccinated customers to forgo masks, but have to obtain proof from employees.
“Employees shouldn’t have to become the ‘vaccine police’ for any reason,” Braun said in a statement.
In a town hall event May 20 — before the newest proclamation — Braun told 20th Legislative District constituents that he doubted lawmakers in either party would pursue a “vaccine passport” policy, suggesting the political ramifications would be too great. But later, upon reviewing the new guidance, Braun said requiring a “workplace passport by proxy is just as much of a mistake.”
Other Southwest Washington Republicans have also made their voice heard on the issue, including Aberdeen’s Rep. Jim Walsh, who used a virtual town hall last week to tell constituents that the governor’s approach was “clever” in shifting the vaccine verification process to employers.
“I hope nobody falls for this suggested enforcement mechanism, because no employer or business in its right mind should participate in requiring papers,” he said.
In terms of what the new requirements mean for customers, Republican lawmakers’ sentiments haven’t been uniform.
Braun, along with Longview’s Sen. Jeff Wilson, have both reminded constituents that private businesses have the right to make their own rules for customers. It mirrors State Health Secretary Umair Shah’s plea for Washingtonians to “respect the rules of the room.”
Rep. Joel McEntire, of Cathlamet, offered a harsher rebuke of vaccine incentives that may be allowed under governmental guidance, calling them “dirty tricks of the machine of those who want to control other people’s lives.”
The new L&I guidance aligned Washington with the CDC, which announced earlier in May that fully vaccinated people are safe to remove their masks in most indoor settings. That announcement came amid declining infection rates nationwide, and prompted celebration, including by President Joe Biden, who said it was a “great day for America.”
Still, health officials in some Washington jurisdictions are asking vaccinated residents to continue masking. Last week, Thurston County’s health officer made the request, citing the county’s majority of residents still not fully vaccinated. King County’s top health official also asked people to continue masking regardless of vaccination status.
There’s no indication that Lewis County will follow in those counties’ footsteps, despite its relatively low vaccination rate and high transmission rate. And locally, some retailers’ signs are beginning to reflect the relaxed mask guidance. While many stores are still requiring masks, others — such as Chehalis’ Grocery Outlet — have posted signs informing fully-vaccinated customers that they can ditch the masks.