Washington State deems all indoor spaces as equally unsafe in the pandemic and unequally essential. We’re 10 months into COVID-19 and the science has evolved. It’s time Washington changed its approach.
As a small town commercial building owner, I spent most of the summer preparing for this moment. Fall would see a third wave and it would be worse than the others. With small businesses and nonprofits as tenants, I saw it as my job to increase building safety. I turned to Washington State Public Health guidance but found it lacking. Everything boiled down to masking, distancing, and social isolating.
Washington State doesn’t have any guidance on reducing COVID-19 aerosols indoors*. Employees think they could take off masks when six feet apart indoors. An asymptomatic, distanced, maskless staffer could fill their indoor space with the COVID-19 virus. — And still be in compliance with Washington’s recommendations.
Washington’s advice didn’t reflect the recommendations for risk-reduction of airborne, indoors COVID-19. Respected virologists, ventilation experts, and public health experts recommended a more comprehensive pandemic defense. Yes, mask, distance, and limit social contact — these are foundational, but not enough. Experts around the world say we can reduce risk via ventilation and air filtration. Instead of Washington Public Health, I turned to Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health for guidance on how to reduce COVID-19 risk in my buildings.
Here’s what I learned from experts like Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health:
- Use a layered approach to protections, in addition to masks and distancing
- Consistent use of masks reduces airborne COVID-19 by up to 50%
- Inexpensive, portable HEPA air purifiers can reduce airborne COVID-19 an additional 25%
- Ventilation is key. Install windows or improve ventilation systems. This further reduces risk by 10 to 15%
- Indoor CO2 levels correlate to potential airborne COVID-19 levels. By keeping indoor CO2 levels under 600 parts per million, indoor spaces can drive down risk. How? Use a CO2 monitor and open windows when CO2 levels rise beyond 600 PPM
- Use humidifiers to lower transmission risk even further
For anyone doing the math at home, these solutions add up to a 85 to 90% risk reduction in indoor spaces.
Instead of a risk-mitigation approach, Washington tries to categorize risk by type of business. (It’s like their business-category approach to other public health threats like foodborne illness.) Washington mandates closures and capacity by throwing the breaks on social contact. Yet, the few people left in shared spaces lack enhanced pandemic defense. Businesses and the public never got a list of proven tools to drive down transmission risk. The current approach is simplistic and complicated at the same time.
If we’re going to stop this pandemic’s rampage of our health and economy, Washington needs to evolve its recommendations and reflect expert guidance. Businesses need closure exemptions if they’ve implemented distancing, sanitizing, and aerosol mitigation tools. We need PSAs with intuitive videos and animations (like seen in Europe), explaining airborne viral spread. The state needs to bulk buy and distribute portable HEPA and MERV filters, CO2 monitors, and humidifiers. Grants need to be available for HVAC filtration and window improvements. Apps are needed to help businesses and schools schedule opening windows to increase ventilation.
My buildings are ready for this moment. I installed functional transoms over doorways (for ventilation), HEPA filters for indoor spaces, and trained tenants on CO2 monitors. Signs in common areas and bathrooms went up, asking all to wear masks in common spaces, even if they’re alone. I took out a loan to cover the costs, which were between $500 to $2,000 per commercial space. No matter. Despite all my precaution, Washington State treats my tenant’s spaces at the same level of risk as others.
This week, Governor Inslee said, “There is light at the end of this tunnel. We will continue to fight, adapt and persevere.” We’re all in the fight of our lives, but if we want out of this dark tunnel, it will take more than closures to persevere. Each household, school, and business should become equipped with comprehensive public health tools. We need to become the lights towards the end of the tunnel. If Washington State’s approach adapts, all of us have better chance at survival.
Sarah Schacht is a third-generation commercial building owner on Whidbey Island, a Georgetown University Beeck Center Data + Digital Fellow, a Harvard Kennedy Center 2020 Senior Executive Fellow, and the public health advocate behind King County’s posted restaurant inspection scores.