Gov. Jay Inslee is poised to release new guidance as soon as Friday about when Washington’s largest counties may be able to begin lifting the economic and social restrictions that have been in place for more than two months.
Most of Washington’s 39 counties already have moved on to the second phase of Inslee’s four-phase reopening plan. But the state’s three biggest counties, among others, have coronavirus infection rates that remain stubbornly above the threshold Inslee laid out as among the criteria for a variance from his “stay home” order.
Other smaller counties, including Yakima, Benton and Franklin, that have seen major outbreaks, are also far from the threshold.
The stay-home order is set to expire Monday. Inslee’s office on Thursday said they were finalizing the steps that would come afterward and would address it Friday.
Snohomish County, where the nation’s first identified case of the virus was found in January, said it plans to ask the state’s permission to move to Phase 2 of reopening. That would allow retail businesses, barbers and salons to reopen, and it would allow restaurants to offer in-house dining, as long as they’re at less than half capacity. It also would allow gatherings of five people or fewer.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, in conjunction with the county health district, said the county would apply to move to Phase 2 as soon as Friday, after votes in emergency sessions of the County Council and the county Board of Health.
“Snohomish County residents have paid a heavy price from the COVID-19 pandemic,” Somers said, noting the county has the highest unemployment rate in the state.
He said the county meets almost all of the criteria the state has laid out for reopening: They have sufficient hospital-bed capacity and supplies of personal protective equipment; they have enough testing; a system set up for contact tracing; and a quarantine facility for those who can’t quarantine at home.
What the county doesn’t have is an infection rate below 10 new infections per 100,000 people over 14 days. King and Pierce counties are even farther from the threshold. That benchmark, set by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, was adopted by the state last week as necessary to apply for a variance to move to Phase 2.
The big question is, will that remain crucial when new guidance goes into place June 1?
Somers said they’ve been in consistent contact with Inslee’s office and have been given no promises. He said with the exception of infections in long-term-care facilities, Snohomish County’s infection rate is very close to the benchmark.
“They said submit a thoughtful application and we will give it consideration, so that’s all the assurances we have,” Somers said. “We believe we tick all the boxes and requirements.”
Inslee, at a teleconference Thursday, said the order would not allow Snohomish County to move to Phase 2, but he was coy as to whether that would change.
“In the next few days we will have more decisions about June 1 and where we go from here,” Inslee said. “So I think there will probably be some pleased folks to some degree.”
The lobbying group that represents restaurants in Washington is pushing for restaurants to be allowed to reopen, with restrictions.
“Restaurants have been preparing to reopen for weeks and have been investing in physical changes, additional safety protocols and acquiring necessary equipment,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association. “We believe all Washington restaurants should be able to open at 50 percent capacity by June 1 to bring our employees back to work and reopen our economy.”
King County is not making a similar push to reopen.
“We know King County is currently not eligible to move phases under the existing metrics,” said Chad Lewis, a spokesman for County Executive Dow Constantine. “We are continuing to work closely with the Governor’s Office and Department of Health to determine how and when King County will safely modify physical distancing measures.”
Stephanie Formas, chief of staff for Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan, said they’ve been discussing how the city and county could tweak current restrictions and physical distancing measures.
The conversations have included questions such as, “Are there safe activities, based on what we know about the virus, that may be able to be modified?” without moving completely into Phase 2, Formas said, mentioning some outdoor activities as a possibility.
Staff writer Daniel Beekman contributed to this report.