In public indoor settings--even if they require proof of vaccination--Public Health says the layered approach is still the best way to go.
With Snohomish County to our north and Oregon to our south re-implementing indoor mask mandates, many wonder if King County and Washington state might do the same. COURTESY TYLER HILL/KREMWERK
“I just want to give it up to myself for not mentioning the apocalypse in my opening monologue,” said Jane Don't, a Seattle drag queen, at her weekly happy hour drag show on Tuesday evening.

The audience cheered this feat since it was no easy task; the apocalypse was still felt everywhere. It was the topic of conversation in between numbers, during intermission, before and after the show. Even within the all-vaccinated crowd in Chop Suey, where staff checked vaccine cards at the door, people were navigating best practices on how to stay safe during an ongoing pandemic.

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Masks were the main point of confusion. First off, should you wear one? And if you do, should you wear a mask while sitting at your table? Or only when traveling to and from the bar? What about when greeting friends you just shared a cigarette with outside? And what should the performers do? Do they wear a mask when stepping into the audience to pick up tips? More layers, it seemed, would offer more protection.

The show's stage kitten—the poor soul responsible for picking up crumbled tips thrown at drag queens—wore a mask the entire show, as did a few others in the crowd. Some only put on a mask to go to the bar or bathroom, but took it off when chatting with friends. "I'm only wearing it because everyone else is wearing it!" laughed one masked audience member.

Rising COVID cases and hospitalizations in Washington are enough cause for concern that state health officials, in step with federal authorities, now recommend that everyone who lives in an area of substantial or high COVID transmission mask up in public indoor settings—regardless of vaccination status.

While vaccines are still the best tool we have right now to fight COVID, wearing a mask can help prevent a vaccinated person from unknowingly passing along the Delta variant to others and protect against rare but expected breakthrough cases.

Some areas, like Snohomish County to Seattle's north, have started to reintroduce mask mandates. King County has not issued a new mandate, which means mask use is largely up to individuals and businesses.

Public Health—Seattle & King County reports that COVID outbreaks are most likely to occur "in indoor settings where people have prolonged contact with one another." This increased risk presents a particular challenge for bars, concert venues, workers, and especially for performers, who ostensibly get onstage to sing, lip-sync, and recite lines with their lips and mouths in clear view. But is it practical to expect a vaccinated performer to mask up onstage?

"For performers, the guidance for indoor public setting would apply," wrote Sharon Bogan of Public Health—Seattle & King County when asked about the county's guidance in a recent email. That means performers should consider wearing masks and "distancing as much as possible" from others. Venues should consider improvements to air quality and ventilation systems, said Bogan. She also suggested venues might want to require vaccinations for entry and among their staff.

"With the Delta-driven surge, now is an important time to layer precautions that can reduce the risk of spread [to] everyone," she wrote.

Seattle's clubs and bars have responded to renewed mask recommendations and rising COVID rates with a patchwork approach. Many venues now require proof of vaccination, a negative COVID test, or a mask to enter.

Cozell Wilson, a singer and guitarist with the Seattle band Beverly Crusher, thinks vaccinated bands should set an example and mask up at their indoor shows. While the trio played a set back in early July at the Tractor Tavern without masks, Wilson said that going forward they are "definitely wearing masks" whenever they play inside in light of the rising caseload.

"Inside the venue, everybody should have their masks on unless you're taking a sip of your beer or whatever," Wilson said in a recent phone interview. "And if you're coming to a see a band that's like, 'Hey we think you should have your mask on' and you don't want to wear your mask, then I don't want you to come and see my show."

Last week, Public Health—Seattle & King County published insights into three notable outbreaks of COVID in recent weeks, one of which occurred at an unnamed indoor music club last month. The county identified 26 people who came down with COVID out of 374 who attended an event at the club. Of the 26 cases, 18 reported they were vaccinated. No hospitalizations or deaths have been recorded with this outbreak.

While their investigation is still ongoing, Public Health found that the mask-optional event required proof of vaccination for attendees, but "vaccination status was not verified for staff and some staff were not vaccinated." In addition to poor ventilation, the venue didn't have enough space for social distancing.

This outbreak case study, coupled with two others from an indoor gym and childcare program, led the county to conclude that "layered protection remains the best protection." Meaning, in addition to vaccination, which greatly decreases a person's chance of serious illness, multiple strategies—masks, ventilation, social distance, staying home when feeling ill, limiting "high-risk activities"—should be used to reduce the risk of contracting the virus.

Beverly Crusher recently played at ZooTunes, an outdoor concert series put on by the Woodland Park Zoo where attendees are restricted to staying within a certain zone, in pods, with people they know. Wilson said the confluence of factors—the distancing, the large space, the outdoor nature of the show—made performing without a mask much less risky than performing indoors.

"When we pulled up we had [masks] on, we didn't know what space we were going to be in, but after I felt a little more comfortable," said Wilson. "We're outside, we're not in anybody's zone, we're behind the stage, we're fine—for me, I can't speak for everybody in the band."

Currently, Seattle Theatre Group—which runs the Paramount, Moore, and Neptune Theatres—is one of the only organizations to enforce the multi-layered approach recommended by the county. Its venues require attendees to show proof of vaccination and also wear masks (when not eating or drinking) to enter. While masks for the vaccinated aren't discouraged at other nightlife venues like Neumos, Kremwerk, and the Clock-Out Lounge, it's not a requirement for entry.

Importantly, Public Health's Sharon Bogan emphasized that COVID-19 vaccines are "continuing to provide high-level protection against hospitalization & death" and that we should expect breakthrough cases, especially among a large number of vaccinated people. In King County, over 1.4 million people have completed their vaccine series.

"No vaccine is 100% effective, so the more people that are vaccinated, the more cases we will have among vaccinated people," wrote Bogan. "But the risk is much higher for infection for unvaccinated people."

Coronavirus breakthrough cases in context.
Coronavirus breakthrough cases in context, from King County. Courtesy of Public Health—Seattle & King County slide Deck

On Monday, state and local officials announced a vaccine mandate for government employees and private healthcare workers in a move to stymy the COVID surge in Washington. As Governor Inslee pointed out, we can prevent this potential backslide if more people get vaccinated.

“The reason we are in this pickle today is because about 30% of eligible residents so far have chosen not to get this life-saving vaccine,” Inslee said. “We simply need more people to roll up their sleeves, literally, and help pull on this rope.”

In the meantime, if people go out to see a concert or drag show or any sort of live performance in a crowded setting, public health officials still recommend wearing a mask, even if everyone is vaccinated.

"Don't come and put people in jeopardy," said Wilson of Beverly Crusher. "It won't bum me out if you don't support my music because I want you to keep people safe."

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If you'd like to get a COVID test, King County offers free testing at these locations.

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