Venue operators such as Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Paramount Theatre, support the direction the county is taking.
Venue operators such as Seattle Theatre Group, which runs the Paramount Theatre, support the direction the county is taking. Kelly O

As the Delta variant continues its rampage of fuckery across the globe and sends COVID-19 hospitalization rates in the Seattle area spiking to their highest levels since December, King County announced yesterday that it’s working on a plan to require proof of vaccination at nonessential businesses.

The announcement came on the same day that the Seattle Kraken announced it will require all fans ages 12 and over to have proof of vaccination by the time of the team's first NHL game on October 23. The Seattle Seahawks and the University of Washington followed suit, requiring proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test from all fans within 72 hours of kickoff.

The details of the County’s plan are still sketchy, however. Kate Cole, a spokesperson for Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC), says the county probably won’t fully enact the requirements until mid-to-late October, though a clearer announcement of the plan will come in a week or two. PHSKC also won’t say for sure at the moment what sorts of nonessential businesses and events will be affected by the new policy. But if similar regulations in New York City and San Francisco are any indication, the list will likely include restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, entertainment venues, and large indoor gatherings such as weddings.

In an email, Cole said that “King County and Public Health are building the vaccine verification policy in consultation with PHSKC’s Pandemic and Racism Community Advisory Group, cities, small businesses, chambers of commerce, labor unions, trade associations, community groups, sports teams, venue owners, and faith-based leaders throughout the county to ensure the policy is workable, fair, and equitable for businesses and residents.”

The Kraken’s announcement came two weeks after the state issued an indoor mask requirement and the same day that King County began requiring masking at outdoor events with more than 500 people in attendance. “Our announcement was slightly different, given the nature of the venue,” said Katie Townsend, a spokesperson for the Kraken. “We’ve worked closely with the county and the state on this policy, and we wanted to give our fans six weeks advance notice to get vaccinated.”

The county’s slow move toward vaccine requirements comes after many Seattle-area businesses, venues, and bars have been asking for vaccine cards for months. Governments such as British Columbia and Clallam and Jefferson County are also way ahead of the county.

The surge in hospitalizations of unvaccinated patients locally in the past month — 87% of those admitted for COVID-19 aren’t fully vaccinated — finally forced the county’s hand on the issue. The alternative measure of closing businesses was a much less attractive option. “Vaccine verification is the best way for businesses and gatherings to remain open, vibrant, and at full capacity,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine in a press release announcing the planned mandate.

Venue operators such as Seattle Theatre Group (STG), which runs the Paramount, Moore, and Neptune theatres, began requiring proof of vaccination for all patrons, staff, and performers in August. “Seattle Theatre Group is in full support of the direction the county is leading this in,” said Josh LaBelle, STG’s executive director. “We were getting a fair amount of feedback from artists and patrons that this would make both parties feel much more comfortable.”

“I would hope that mandates like this from government will help provide incentive to the unwilling, those who are able to get vaccinated and are simply choosing not to — to really rethink that choice," LaBelle added.

One complicated point in the mandate involves children under 12, who currently aren’t eligible for the vaccine. STG asks that children under 12 show proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours, while venues such as Climate Pledge Arena will exempt kids from the requirement (but also require masking for everyone).

Public Health spokesperson Cole said the county is discussing requirements for children in its new policy. “We anticipate that the policy would not impact children who aren’t eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Individual businesses will maintain the option to put in place more restrictive proof-of-vaccine requirements as they see fit," she said.

In addition, STG requires that staff and all touring performers and crew are fully vaccinated, which is in line with a recent decision by Actors Equity to require all cast and crew of touring productions be fully vaccinated. “Seattle Theatre Group treats everyone the same,” LaBelle said. “You have to show proof of vaccination or proof of a negative COVID test within 72 hours of stepping into our building.”

NHL hockey players, however, don’t currently face those same requirements. “Our vaccination numbers among players across the league are quite high,” said Townsend, though she did not make exact figures available. Late last month, an NHL official said he believes all players “should get vaccinated,” but because of a collective bargaining agreement any mandate for player still needs to be negotiated.

For LaBelle, across-the-board vaccine requirements just make sense from a public health and business standpoint, and they're a hell of a lot better than the alternative of business closures. “For the Paramount Theatre, it was 17 months and 16 days,” he said. “I can’t imagine going through another shutdown. If we’re all intentional and mindful about staying healthy, we can continue to enjoy the arts and restaurants and what have you.”