skip navigation
Share this:

Face Masks and In-Person Public Meetings

May 24, 2021  by  Steve Gross
Category:  Open Public Meetings Act COVID-19

Face Masks and In-Person Public Meetings

Editor’s note: This post was written in May 2021 when the state was relaxing its facial covering requirements. For the latest information on facial covering requirements, see our blog post Face Coverings and Vaccine Requirements: Where Things Stand as of August 23, 2021.

As the scientific and regulatory guidance related to COVID-19 keeps getting updated, local government agencies continue to navigate the constantly shifting requirements for holding public meetings under the Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA). In this blog we will review the current status and then discuss what might happen with public meetings.

Where We Are as of May 24, 2021

For meetings subject to the OPMA, the default is still a remote meeting. All of Washington State is in Phase 3 of the Safe Start/Roadmap to Recovery program. So, in addition to the remote meeting, agencies can choose (but are not required) to have an in-person component. However, to have the in-person component agencies have to comply with the following rules.

Proclamation 20-28.15, which has been in place since January and extends the specific restrictions on in-person components on meetings contained in Proclamation 20-28.14, provides the basic framework for in-person attendance. Also affecting in-person meetings are Proclamation 20-25.13, which incorporates the new facial covering guidance into the state’s reopening plan and the Washington State Secretary of Health’s Order 20-03.2  (effective May 15, 2021). The most recent Order requires people to wear a face covering “when they are in a place where people from outside their household are present or in a place that is generally accessible to people from outside their household.”

However, as it applies to attending a public meeting, the order says that people are not required to wear a face covering indoors if they are fully vaccinated.

Remember that local agencies, including health departments, boards, and health officers can adopt more restrictive rules, so consult and work with those agencies as well.

An agency can allow in-person attendance to a meeting only if it can comply with the Miscellaneous Venues guidance (the "business meetings" component applies to public meetings under Proclamation 20-28.14 et. seq.), which was updated most recently on June 2, 2021.

In the current version of this guidance, fully vaccinated attendees (i.e., two weeks past the date of their second Pfizer/Moderna vaccine or their single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine) are not required to wear a face covering or be physically separated from one another. If any attendees are not fully vaccinated and there is not a separate section for fully vaccinated people, capacity is limited to 50% capacity or 1,000 people, whichever is smaller.

However, venues may exceed 50% indoor capacity if there is a separate section for fully vaccinated people, and the occupancy restrictions and physical distancing requirements have been removed entirely if all attendees are vaccinated. Physical distancing is required between sections for fully vaccinated attendees and unvaccinated attendees.

If the agency is providing an in-person component, it must still allow all persons who wish to attend in person to do so. Because non-vaccinated attendees are still required to wear masks, agencies will still have to provide physical separation for those attendees. An agency can provide the physical separation for unvaccinated persons by using an overflow room as long as all persons attending the meeting can hear each other at the same time.

If the agency cannot meet all the requirements in Proclamation 20-28.14, it must recess the entire meeting, not just the in-person component, until it can comply. If compliance cannot be restored, the agency must adjourn the meeting.

Can an Agency Verify Vaccination Status?

For attendees at public meetings under the OPMA, agencies may ask if the visitor is either fully vaccinated or otherwise exempt from wearing a face covering as provided in the Secretary of Health’s face covering order and Proclamation 20-25.13. The Miscellaneous Venues guidance requires visitors to provide proof of vaccination verified by a health care provider and specifically says that “self-reported vaccination records that are not verified by a health care provider cannot be accepted.”

The requirement that proof of vaccination be verified by a health care professional is specific to the Miscellaneous Venues guidance. So, while it applies to public meetings under the OPMA it does not apply to other meetings or visits to the agency’s customer service areas. See our Face Masks in the Local Government Workplace blog for more detail about those requirements.

If the visitor says they are not fully vaccinated but is otherwise exempt under the Proclamation, the agency may offer a reasonable accommodation (alternative way to receive service, if feasible). If the reasonable accommodation is refused, the agency must deny the person entry. If the customer declines to provide information or says that they refuses to wear a face covering (not exempt under the face covering order and proclamation but unwilling to wear a face covering), the agency must deny the customer entry/service (unless there are worker safety concerns).

Be careful to only ask questions that have a “yes” or “no” response, and do not ask a person why they did or did not get vaccinated — or you may be violating medical privacy rules.

However, agencies must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act when considering restrictions or conditions of access to public meetings. Agencies should think about how they can provide reasonable accommodations to allow attendance at the meetings if necessary. Additionally, if someone says they are unable to wear a face covering, they do not need a vaccination card nor do they have to explain their condition to anyone.

Since RCW 42.30.050 allows agencies to exclude a person whose behavior “render[s] the orderly conduct of such meeting unfeasible and order cannot be restored,” we believe that agencies can exclude people who are not fully vaccinated and/or will not comply with health and safety directions by refusing to wear a face mask and/or remain physically separated.    

What Happens Next?

Governor Inslee has indicated that the goal is for the state to fully reopen at the end of June. As it relates to the OPMA, the governor could end the emergency, which would automatically end the restrictions on public meetings, or he could specifically repeal or modify the 20-28 series of proclamations related to the OPMA. If the specific OPMA restrictions are not rescinded or amended, then they will still control how you conduct public meetings that are subject to the OPMA over any general opening guidance.

If either the emergency declaration or the OPMA-specific proclamation is rescinded, we believe that agencies would be covered by the pre-proclamation Washington State Attorney General’s (AG) guidance that a governing body can choose to hold its meeting remotely if there is a physical location where members of the public can attend, hear, and be heard. The Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) General Guidance Regarding Coronavirus, issued March 6, 2020, prior to Proclamation 20-28, reflects the normal OPMA requirements and applies even in the absence of an emergency situation.

There is a minority position advocated by some city attorneys that the OPMA does not require a physical location at all, but that is inconsistent with AG guidance and MRSC tends to take the conservative approach.

MRSC will continue to update our COVID-19 Resources for Local Governments webpage as we get additional direction from the state.

MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Steve Gross

Steve Gross joined MRSC as a Legal Consultant in January 2020.

Steve has worked in municipal law and government for over 20 years as an Assistant City Attorney for Lynnwood, Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn, and as the City Attorney for Port Townsend and Auburn. He also has been a legal policy advisor for the Pierce County Council and has worked in contract administration.



Blog Archives


Follow Our Blog