By JOCELYN GECKER and ADAM BEAM
SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Schoolchildren in California, Oregon and Washington will no longer be required to wear masks as part of new indoor mask policies the Democratic governors of all three states announced jointly on Feb. 28.
“With declining case rates and hospitalizations across the West, California, Oregon and Washington are moving together to update their masking guidance,” the governors said in a statement. There are more than 7.5 million school-age children across the three states, which have had some of the strictest coronavirus safety measures during the pandemic.
The new guidance will make face coverings strongly recommended rather than a requirement at most indoor places in California starting on March 1 and at schools on March 12, regardless of vaccination status. In Washington and Oregon, all the requirements will lift on March 12. In all three states, the decision of whether to follow the state guidance will now rest with school districts.
The West Coast announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the federal mask guidance on Feb. 25, essentially saying the majority of Americans don’t need to wear masks in many indoor public places, including schools. Federal mask mandates still apply in high-risk indoor settings such as public transportation, in airports and in taxis.
The new CDC guidelines are based on measures focused more on what’s happening at hospitals than on test results. The CDC said that more than 70% of Americans live in places where the coronavirus poses a low or medium threat to hospitals and therefore can stop wearing masks in most indoor places.
The CDC had endorsed universal masking in schools regardless of virus levels in the community since July, but it is now recommending masks only in counties at high risk.
Based on that criteria, 16 of Oregon’s 36 counties fall under the “high” level of transmission. Dr. Dean Sidelinger, Oregon’s state epidemiologist, said he hopes community leaders will use the CDC framework in “guiding their decisions” about masking.
California and Washington also have several counties still listed as high risk, but projections show that case numbers and hospitalizations will continue to drop over the coming weeks, officials said.
“We’re turning a page in our fight against the COVID virus,” Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said during a Feb. 28 news conference.
Inslee said in a separate statement that he expects many businesses and families to continue choosing to wear masks. “As we transition to this next phase, we will continue to move forward together carefully and cautiously,” he said.