OLYMPIA — The Seattle Mariners will have real-life opening day fans, restrictions will begin to lift on other outdoor sports events and Washington’s 39 counties will soon move to a new third phase in Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 reopening plan.
Inslee’s announcement Thursday about changes in his Healthy Washington reopening plan will allow restaurants, retailers, fitness centers and other indoor spaces to open with up to 50% capacity. The changes — most of which kick in on March 22 — will take effect across the state.
“The reason we’re able to make this progress today is because we have been safe, we have been diligent, we have been intentional, we have cared about our loved ones and ourselves,” Inslee said during the news conference.
“But we’ve got to understand, we’re still in a fight,” the governor continued. “We have these variants out there, and this thing could spring back on us again.”
The announcement arrives as cases of the coronavirus have been declining in Washington state and COVID-19 vaccinations continue to be distributed.
The increased rollout of the vaccine led Inslee to also announce that the state was speeding up by one week the vaccine eligibility plans for people in the second tier of Phase 1B. That group includes law enforcement, corrections staffers and firefighters, and workers in public transit, grocery stores, agricultural and food processing sectors. They will be eligible for the vaccine starting March 17.
As of Thursday, 18% of state residents have received at least one vaccine dose, according to Lacy Fehrenbach, an assistant secretary with the state Department of Health. Around 10% of Washingtonians have been completely vaccinated.
In a statement, a pair of Republican state senators praised Inslee’s move and pointed to a plan they released last week that would have immediately lifted the occupancy of restaurants, gyms and other places to 50% capacity.
“I so appreciate that the governor incorporated many details of our ‘Open Safe, Open Now’ plan for moving to Phase 3 into the plan he announced today,” said Sen. Ann Rivers, R-La Center, in prepared remarks, adding later: “I do wish he had worked with us more directly since collaboration is how we are going to recover fully. But I am very encouraged.”
The new phase will allow outdoor events in facilities with permanent seating to have up to 25% capacity, with masks and distancing required. That will allow not only spectators at Mariners games, but also at games for the Sounders, Reign and other teams. It also includes high school sports, rodeos, motorsports and other outdoor events.
For youth sports and high school sports, the new provisions will kick in even earlier, on March 18.
The third phase will also boost occupancy — in places like restaurants and gyms — for indoor spaces to 50%. Alcohol service will be able to go to midnight under the new plan, an hour later than what is currently allowed.
The governor’s office will be issuing more specific guidance on certain industry sectors in the coming days.
The Healthy Washington plan took effect in January and broke Washington into eight regions.
Under that plan, some regions — including the region composed of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties — advanced to the second phase in late January and started reopening, resuming indoor dining and fitness centers at 25% capacity. Since then, the other regions have advanced, and every county has moved to that phase and those capacity restrictions.
Groups like the Washington Hospitality Association have urged the governor to allow restaurants to allow 50% capacity.
“We celebrate today’s announcement by the governor that restaurants can open to 50% indoor capacity — this will benefit both the health of our state and of our industry,” said association president and CEO Anthony Anton in a statement Thursday. “Since restaurants have been opened in our state, cases have continued to drop. This is a testament to our rigorous safety standards and practices, which are among the most strict in the nation.”
Inslee’s announcement also includes changes to the overall structure of the plan.
Gone are the regions, and the new shift brings back a county-by-county approach to lifting or reapplying restrictions, with counties being evaluated every three weeks. The first evaluation is set for April 12.
Larger counties must hit a series of benchmarks for two public health metrics that decide whether they will advance. Thresholds are set for each of the plan’s three phases for both new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days, and new COVID-19 hospitalizations per seven days.
For instance, for a large county to stay in the third phase, it must have fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 people over two weeks. A rate of more than 350 new cases over that time would send it back to the first, and most restrictive, phase.
Counties with a population of 50,000 or fewer — such as San Juan, Pacific or Okanogan counties — will be evaluated on the basis of the number of new COVID-19 cases over two weeks, and new hospitalizations over seven days.
For example, a small county will stay in the third phase if it has fewer than 30 new cases over two weeks. But with more than 60 new cases in that time, it would go back to the first phase.
If the state’s intensive care unit capacity at any point reaches 90% or higher, all counties will move back to the first phase, which prohibits indoor dining and shuts down, among other things, gyms and entertainment events.
Seattle Times food writer Tan Vinh contributed to this report.