King County to end COVID vaccine requirements for restaurants, bars and gyms

Restaurants, bars, theaters and gyms in King County will no longer be required to check the vaccination status of their patrons starting March 1, officials announced Wednesday, as the county begins rolling back pandemic policies that have been in place for decades. month.

From March 1, businesses will be free to impose their own vaccination requirements if they wish, but the countywide requirement will disappear. Since last fall, indoor restaurants and cultural and recreational spaces have been required to verify their customers’ vaccination status or a negative COVID test, as a condition of entry.

The policy also applies to outdoor events with more than 500 people, such as concerts and sporting events.

“Our public health experts believe the time is right to lift vaccine verification, based on high rates of vaccine coverage and declining new cases and hospitalizations across the county,” the director of the county said Wednesday. King’s County, Dow Constantine. “We are moving in the right direction and can continue to take additional steps towards recovery.”

Constantine and Seattle Mayor Bruce Harrell also announced that they would begin, gradually, recalling the office of the thousands of county and city employees who have been working remotely for nearly two years. King County has about 7,000 employees working remotely and Seattle has about 5,000.

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The county’s and much of the country’s COVID transmission rates have dropped sharply in recent weeks as the December omicron-variant-fueled surge receded.

In King County, average daily cases have fallen more than 82% since the peak in early January, county data shows. Hospitalizations fell by more than 62%.

The vaccine control policy was originally intended to be reassessed by March 16 – six months after its announcement – ​​but is abandoned a few weeks before the scheduled date.

Jurisdictions across the country that have strict COVID policies in place have begun rolling them back in recent weeks.

Washington, DC, recently dropped its vaccine requirement for indoor dining. New York State last week abandoned his policy that indoor businesses require either masks or vaccinations. New Jersey, Connecticut and Delaware all recently relaxed school mask mandates. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said he plans to announce information this week about the end of the statewide mask mandate on schools and businesses. Inslee has a press conference scheduled for Thursday.

“We announced the vaccination verification policy in anticipation of an increase in cases in the fall and winter,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, public health officer for Seattle and King County. “The intention was to reduce the transmission of COVID-19 in high-risk indoor settings and thereby reduce the burden on our hospitals, while allowing time for more people to be fully vaccinated.”

Just over a month ago, hospitals across the state had more than 800 workers isolated and quarantined and unable to work, according to the Washington State Hospital Association. At the start of last week, that number had dropped to around 100.

Yet COVID rates remain at or above the levels they were at when the vaccine verification policy was announced at the peak of the wave of delta variants in September.

The difference, Duchin said, is in which direction the numbers are heading.

“Things are looking up,” he said. “At the time, we were very concerned that things were getting better and worse. »

Duchin said since the vaccine verification policy was announced last fall, more than 250,000 King County residents have been vaccinated. More than 87% of King County residents ages 12 and older are fully immunized, according to the county, and more than 95% in that age group have had at least one hit. More than 79% of county residents of all ages are fully immunized.

And, Duchin said, the omicron surge, which led to the highest levels of infection known to the pandemic, likely gave some level of community immunity, at least in the short term.

Among the companies — where hosts, bouncers, ticket checkers and ushers took at least cursory glances at the vaccination cards, apps and phones of thousands of customers day after day – the reaction was mixed.

Rich Fox, owner-operator of Weimann Maclise, said his seven bars and restaurants in King County, including Rhein Haus on Capitol Hill, will likely stop checking customers’ vaccination status at the door in March.

But no final decisions will be made until he meets with his chief executives and chiefs to see if there are any objections or security concerns, Fox said.

“My initial thought is because of the high vaccination rate in King County and because we have outdoor seating available and because our restaurants are large, we don’t feel like we have to police that anymore. “, said Fox.

Josh Henderson, owner of two Burbs Burgers branches in Seattle, has been one of the city’s most vocal critics of the vaccination mandate.

“It’s long overdue,” Henderson said of the announcement. “It was ridiculous from the start to check vaccination records. We gladly won’t check vax cards, like before. We welcome everyone.

James Lim, owner of Watson’s Counter in Ballard, said customers have appreciated their thoroughness in checking vaccinations and will continue to do so.

“We’ve had a lot of regulars, people who have been loyal to us, it’s just to be loyal to them,” Lim said. “We carefully check the vaccinations. We are checking the dates and a significant number of people have told us via social media and in person that they appreciate it.

Constantine said they support companies that will continue to do vaccine testing.

“A business has the right to require people who come in to be vaccinated, just as it has the right to require that they wear shoes and a shirt and people have no right to try to intimidate this company,” he said.

And while officials called the policy change welcome news, they sought to convey nuance of an ongoing pandemic and a virus that has upended expectations before.

Duchin urged continued COVID precautions, including high-quality masks, improvements in indoor air ventilation and filtration, and limiting time in crowded indoor spaces. He urged vaccinations, including booster shots for people who haven’t had one. Vaccinations are free and health insurance is not compulsory.

Since the start of the omicron surge, unvaccinated King County residents are 27 times more likely and 34 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than those who are fully vaccinated and boosted, according to departmental data.

Editors Jackie Varriano and Tan Vinh contributed to this report.

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