Washington’s latest round of sweeping COVID-19 restrictions will stay in place through the holiday season and into the new year.
Speaking at a news conference Tuesday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a three-week extension of the wide-ranging limits he ordered Nov. 15 — which include shutting down indoor dining and gyms and limiting social gatherings — through Jan. 4.
“This is because we remain concerned about COVID activity and we still do not have a clear picture of the situation following the Thanksgiving weekend,” Inslee said.
He said it’s possible that improvements in infection rates could lead him to “recalibrate,” but said “we don’t know enough yet about the pandemic’s course to be able to do that. This remains an extremely alarming situation.”
Inslee on Tuesday also pledged $50 million in additional state aid for businesses, as well as economic safeguards for workers impacted by the pandemic — vowing to step in to provide unemployment benefits for some workers who will lose them if Congress fails to act by the end of the year.
In a joint statement, state Senate and House Republicans criticized Inslee’s extension of the restrictions.
“It’s very disappointing to see someone who has been drawing a government salary through this entire hardship ordering small businesses to continue complying with restrictions that are making it hard or impossible for them to feed their families. The governor has no idea the anguish and desperation average people are feeling right now,” the statement said.
In addition to stopping indoor service at restaurants and bars, Inslee’s order limits outdoor seating to parties of five or fewer. Gyms, fitness centers, bowling alleys and museums must remain closed.
Indoor gatherings with people outside of a person’s household are prohibited unless participants have quarantined for at least a week and tested negative for the virus.
At the time he announced the Nov. 15 emergency order, initially for four weeks, Inslee said he hoped the state would make progress, “and that would be the limit of these restrictions.” The governor and other officials also had pleaded with the public to limit Thanksgiving gatherings and travel.
But coronavirus infections in Washington have continued to rise.
On Monday, the state reported nearly 7,000 new cases, though health officials said that figure includes a backlog of cases from the weekend as well as 1,800 potential duplicates.
In all, Washington has logged 184,404 infections and 2,941 deaths, according to the state Department of Health.
Rising hospitalizations also are a concern, Inslee said, pointing to projections that hospitals could run short of beds this month.
Some business leaders objected to the latest emergency order extension, saying it will prove devastating for employers and workers already reeling from months of similar clampdowns.
“This extended shutdown will decimate the hospitality industry, with no evidence to support that shutting our industry down works to control the spread of the virus,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, in a statement Tuesday.
Anton argued restaurants have “extremely high safety standards” aimed at keeping customers safe. “Nine months in, there is no plan to address the harm this has caused to our industry,” he said.
Downtown Seattle Association President and CEO Jon Scholes said more than 150 small businesses have closed permanently in downtown Seattle alone, more than half of those in the restaurant industry.
While state aid is welcome, Scholes said the scale of the crisis “warrants greater state relief” and federal action.
Lisa Brown, director of the state Department of Commerce, said the new state aid for businesses will favor sectors such as restaurants and gyms that have been particularly hurt by the new limits on their operations.
The $50 million announced Tuesday doubles the amount available for the “Working Washington” small-business grants, which will provide up to $20,000 for eligible small businesses and nonprofits.
The state will give priority to businesses that submit applications by Dec. 11. The grants are funded with the state’s remaining share of cash from the CARES Act, the $2.2 trillion economic stimulus measure approved earlier this year by Congress and President Donald Trump.
The emergency order extensions by Inslee have increasingly rankled Republicans in the state Legislature, who have been asking for a special session to debate the rules and provide more relief for businesses.
Fifty-two lawmakers signed a new letter to Inslee this week, calling the need for legislative action “urgent and growing.” The Democratic governor has so far rebuffed the requests. The Legislature is scheduled to convene for a regular session next month.
The continuing shutdowns imposed to varying degrees since Inslee’s original “stay home” order in March have taken an increasing toll on workers and employers.
About 27% of Washington businesses have experienced a government-mandated closure — the third-highest rate in the nation, according to federal data cited by the Washington Research Council.
Six percent of the state’s resident civilian workforce of 3.9 million was unemployed in October, the most recent month for which data is available. That’s about 50% more than were unemployed in October 2019.
Inslee said the state is prepared to help some unemployed workers if Congress fails to reach a deal on a second stimulus package by the end of the year.
While not providing details on the size of payments, he said the state could at least temporarily help some 100,000 families receiving Pandemic Unemployment Assistance. That program, funded by the CARES Act, pays benefits to workers such as contractors and self-employed, who didn’t qualify for regular unemployment.
The program expires at the end of the year unless Congress renews or replaces it.
Economists said Inslee’s emergency order extension was widely expected, given how rapidly coronavirus case counts had been rising. But they said the action will place more pressure on businesses and workers.
Jacob Vigdor, with the University of Washington’s Evans School of Public Policy and Governance, noted that the holiday season is traditionally the time when many retailers and other businesses make a large share of their annual income.
“Many small businesses are going to end the year squarely in the red, and for them the question will be whether they have enough money in the bank to keep going or whether they have to call it quits,” Vigdor said.
But even without new restrictions, businesses were likely to see diminished sales, Vigdor said, with many people avoiding in-person visits to businesses.
That argument was echoed by economist James McCafferty, a director at the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, who pointed to projections of consumer “mobility” showing many consumers will stay at or near their homes through March out of concerns about COVID-19.
“Even if these businesses were open they would probably struggle to get customers at the volume they really need to break even or profit,” McCafferty said.
Inslee said there are rays of hope, pointing to the “amazing achievement” of coronavirus vaccines.
But Inslee signaled people will be asked to make sacrifices into the new year. “It will get us to that magic day when that vaccine is distributed more widely,” he said.