SACRAMENTO, Calif. — 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 Monday.
“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.
The new guidance will make face coverings a recommendation rather than a requirement at most indoor places in California starting Tuesday and at schools on March 12, regardless of vaccination status. In Washington and Oregon, all the requirements will lift on March 12.
Federal mask requirements will still apply in high-risk indoor settings such as public transportation, airports and taxis. Rules for other high-risk indoor settings could also vary by state.
The milestone, two years in the making, comes as much of the country relaxes public health orders, including school mask mandates, in an effort to restore normalcy and boost economic recovery. The changes reflect a growing sense that the virus is not going away and Americans need to learn to live with it. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, announced Sunday that the state’s masking requirements in schools would be lifted by March 2. New Jersey, Delaware, Massachusetts and others recently made similar adjustments to ease restrictions for schools.
The announcements signal a turning point that is poignant in its timing, coming almost exactly two years after American cities began shutting down to prevent COVID-19′s spread. California was the first state to announce a shutdown with stay-at-home orders in March 2020, followed soon after by other states.
“Two years ago today, we identified Oregon’s first case of COVID-19,” Oregon Gov. Kate Brown said in the statement. “On the West Coast our communities and economies are linked. Together, as we continue to recover from the Omicron surge, we will build resiliency and prepare for the next variant and the next pandemic.”
Earlier this month, California became the first state to formally shift to an endemic approach to the coronavirus with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s announcement of a plan that emphasizes prevention and quick reaction to outbreaks over mandated masking and business shutdowns.
Newsom has come under growing pressure from Republicans and other critics to ease the school mandate, which has increasingly become a polarizing issue among parents in California.
While many parents still support wearing masks in schools, others have questioned why it’s necessary when they are no longer required to do so in supermarkets and elsewhere. On Feb. 15 California ended an indoor mask requirement for vaccinated people, but at that time left the rule in place for the unvaccinated and for schoolchildren.
Starting Tuesday in California, masks will no longer be required but “strongly recommended” for unvaccinated individuals in most indoor settings. The same shift will apply to K-12 schools and child care facilities starting March 12, the statement said.
The powerful California Teachers Association said it expected a mixed reaction to the announcement at schools across the country’s most populous state.
“Simply put, while some students are ready to immediately remove their masks, others remain very afraid,” CTA President E. Toby Boyd said in a statement. The union has more than 300,000 members. “Change is never easy, and today’s announcement is bound to disrupt and destabilize school communities.”
A handful of California school districts have already dropped mask mandates for students in recent weeks in open defiance of the state mandate.
The West Coast announcements come after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention eased the federal mask guidance Friday, essentially saying the majority of Americans don’t need to wear masks in many indoor public places, including schools.
The new CDC guidance bases recommendations for restrictions such as masking on a new set of measures, with less focus on positive test results and more on what’s happening at hospitals. Under the new system, 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 now recommends masks in schools only in counties at high risk.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said health officials will announce new guidance for schools next week to give them time to prepare.
“Many businesses and families will continue choosing to wear masks,” he said. “As we transition to this next phase, we will continue to move forward together carefully and cautiously.”