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As COVID emergency ends, some Washingtonians still plan to mask

A blonde man in a mask puts onions in his basket at the grocery store. Lettering on the back wall says 'here today, gone tomorrow: these deals won't wait.'
Scott Greenstone
Jackson Palmer, a tech worker in Seattle, still masks when he goes to the grocery store -- and plans to for the foreseeable future.

On Friday, Jackson Palmer prepared to walk into a Grocery Outlet in Seattle the same way he has for most of the last three years: by putting on an N95 mask.

It was the first day after the federal COVID-19 public health emergency officially ended. In Washington state, it marked the end of free tests for Washingtonians, and the state's exposure notification smartphone app shut down, among other things. Mask mandates are long gone, though masks are still recommended in crowded or poorly-ventilated spaces.

But nothing was different for Palmer. He doesn’t wear a mask everywhere — on this grocery trip he’s shopping for a Mother’s Day get-together, and he trusts his family not to come if they’re feeling sick — but he avoids indoor concerts or crowded bars. Back in fall 2021, he let his guard down, and caught COVID at a Seahawks game.

"It took like over a month out of my life. I mean, it was really severe," Palmer said. "I had memory issues … I had to go back to people I had met with for work during that time remotely and tell them I don't remember our meetings … I don't want to get that again, especially if it could be worse."

According to the state Department of Health, around 300,000 Washingtonians have some form of "long" COVID-19 — long-term physical and/or mental effects such as brain fog. Palmer himself isn't experiencing any symptoms any longer, but worries about another brush with the virus.

Palmer’s not totally alone — maybe 1 in 5 people in this store are masking. But we’re in north Seattle, not far from the University of Washington and multiple health care facilities. It's not uncommon in other parts of the state to enter a space and see no one in a mask.

"I feel horribly for all the people that are not just being COVID conscious, but are like, you know, immunocompromised or disabled. And they're basically, at this point, kind of barred from most social common spaces," Palmer said.

Palmer feels it’s a failure of public messaging about what works – like a well-fitted N95 mask. He expects to wear a mask in the grocery store like this for the foreseeable future.

"It's frustrating, but I'm less frustrated with the general population as I am with our public health agencies, and the CDC in particular," he said.

Scott Greenstone is a former KNKX reporter. His reporting focused on under-covered communities, and spotlighting the powerful people making decisions that affect all of us throughout Western Washington.