When Washington begins to reopen an economy largely locked down due to the coronavirus outbreak, the state won’t go it alone. Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday that such plans will be closely coordinated with Oregon and California to ensure the virus remains contained down the West Coast.
With health data suggesting that the spread of the coronavirus may be nearing a plateau in the U.S., public officials are under growing pressure to chart a path back to normality. The longer the state-by-state lockdowns last, the more economic hardship there will be. But dropping stay-at-home restrictions too soon might risk a second wave of infections.
The effort among the West Coast states is largely aimed at making sure the region has enough coronavirus test kits and the ability to trace the contacts of people who have been infected in order to closely monitor and contain outbreaks as society opens back up, Inslee said Monday.
“This pact is about what do we do after we reduce some of our social-distancing, stay-home initiatives,” said Inslee. “It’s more of the issue of how are we going to have, as consistent as we can, testing and contact-tracing initiatives.”
Such a pact wouldn’t necessarily delay a reopening of Washington’s economy if the other two states weren’t ready, said the governor: “I don’t think there’s a reason that that’s a risk.”
Still, Monday’s announcement brought little certainty to whether the state will stick with previous plans to reopen some businesses by May 4. Some observers expect that date will be pushed back out of concern over a resurgence of the disease, which appears to be leveling off thanks to social distancing and other measures. “We don’t have any specific date in mind,” Inslee said in response to a reporter’s question.
Instead, Inslee reasserted his intent to prioritize public health and science in the state’s approach to lifting closure orders. “The rate of infection has to be low enough that we know that it’s not going to simply rebound,” he said.
“I don’t expect on May 4 for it to all to go away instantly,” Inslee chief of staff David Postman said in a question-and-answer session with reporters after the governor’s news conference.
Inslee said the three states were working together on a two-part process that will determine how best to reopen society even as the global pandemic rages.
The first part of the process, according to the governor, is to use data to make sure the states are safe enough to open. That data will include rates of infections and fatalities, the infection rate per capita, the number of hospitalizations of people with COVID-19-like symptoms and the percentages of positive tests.
“The rate of infection has to be low enough that we know that it’s not going to simply rebound,” he said.
After those numbers look good enough, Inslee said, the second part would kick in: ensuring there are enough test kits and having enough staff who can trace the contacts of those newly infected to quickly contain any outbreak.
The governor said the staff is building up the numbers of people needed to work on contact-tracing on that scale.
The agreement among the three states is nonbinding and talks are ongoing, Postman said.
Postman said the states have discussed how they might work together on supply-chain issues to get more materials for testing. The three states have discussed — and may work together — to gain purchasing power for some of those testing materials, he said.
“We haven’t done any group purchases that I’m aware of,” said Postman. “But California and Washington started talking about that a couple weeks ago now.”
As part of the alliance, cabinet and governor staff from all three states will be appointed to work together on the pact, he said.
“It’s a way for us to share expertise, information, alert people to pitfalls,” said Postman. “And we think there’s just a value of having a consistent approach to the economy up and down the West Coast.”
Inslee began closing some businesses in the state on March 16 in an effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus, which causes the COVID-19 disease. The closure was extended to May 4.
Washington’s count of confirmed COVID-19 cases reached 10,538 Monday with 516 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.
Inslee’s announcement on the pact with Oregon and California reaffirmed his previous commitments to prioritize public health in his approach to Washington state’s coronavirus strategy. “Health outcomes and science – not politics – will guide these decisions,” Monday’s statement said, adding that the reopening strategy will start by identifying “clear indicators for communities to restart public life and business.”
Monday’s pact among West Coast states also underscored the desire for a regional approach to a disease that, thus far, has been battled primarily by individual states, with some support and guidance from the federal government.
“COVID-19 has preyed upon our interconnectedness,” Inslee’s statement said. “In the coming weeks, the West Coast will flip the script on COVID-19 – with our states acting in close coordination and collaboration to ensure the virus can never spread wildly in our communities.”
A similar approach was also announced Monday by six states in the Northeast: New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, Delaware and Rhode Island. After the announcement, Massachusetts said it would join the alliance. Roughly 105 million people, or about a third of the U.S. population, live in the 10 states making plans for a post-crisis era.
“The optimum is a geographically coordinated plan,” said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, adding that, “This virus doesn’t understand governmental boundaries.”
Coordination is critical, Cuomo said, to avoid unintended consequences, such as residents of a state where bars are closed driving to another where they’ve reopened.
The regional plans appeared to stoke tensions between state officials and President Donald Trump. Trump tweeted on Monday that he has the power to overrule governors, “open up” states and relax social-distancing practices.
The declaration came after economic advisers pressed concerns within the White House about the economic fallout from the shutdown, and as Trump’s patience appeared to fray after earlier ceding to health advisers’ insistence that his initial target date of reopening the country by Easter was too early.
He said he would make a decision “soon” on reopening, “in conjunction with the governors and input from others.” But he added that “it is the decision of the president, and for many good reasons.” He didn’t list any.
Trump can pressure states to act or threaten them with consequences, but the Constitution gives public health and safety responsibilities primarily to state and local officials.
Inslee dismissed Trump’s claims Monday. While Inslee said that state officials were working closely with federal agencies to battle the coronavirus, legal authority over when to lift stay-at-home orders and other state-imposed restrictions lie “in the singular purview of the state of Washington and the governor of the state of Washington.”
Cuomo, in his daily briefing, seemed to agree with Trump that the federal government has the authority to overrule the states. But he questioned why the White House would get to direct the reopening after it delegated closures to the states.
“Let’s see what the federal government’s plan is,” Cuomo said. Trump “left it to the states to close down, and that was a state-by-state decision, without any guidance, really.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom in an announcement said he would unveil a framework on Tuesday for lifting California’s stay-home order, including the metrics that would guide that process. Further details about how to restart California’s economy will come later in the week, Newsom said, along with preliminary figures about how the virus would affect the state’s budget.
Talk about how and when to reboot the nation’s economy has come as Trump has bristled at criticism that he was slow to respond to the virus and that lives could have been saved had social-distancing recommendations been put in place sooner.
Although Washington state business leaders were pleased to see a regional approach, some worried that continued uncertainty over a reopening date is challenging businesses’ ability to plan for the post-COVID-19 recovery.
Businesses need some certainty “that we’re going to be coming out of this phase and into the next phase,” said Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business. Many state businesses are “really nervous about what ‘next’ looks like.”
Material from Bloomberg News and the Associated Press is included in this report.