King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and three other counties will be able to relax some COVID-19 restrictions on businesses starting Monday, Gov. Jay Inslee has announced.
That change will allow restaurants in those counties to reopen indoor service at restaurants 25% capacity through 11 p.m. Indoor fitness centers and live entertainment venues — including museums, bowling alleys and concert halls — can also reopen to 25% capacity. Bars that don’t serve food, however, must remain closed.
In a news conference Thursday, Inslee announced he was loosening the restrictions in two of the eight regions in his Healthy Washington plan.
“We certainly like our progress we’ve recently made bringing down COVID activity,” said Inslee. “And so these are some promising signs we’re headed in the right direction.”
But, “If we relax too much, we could be back in the horrific days of this with exponential growth,” the governor added later.
The announcement brought swift reactions from industry associations, who called the move a step forward — but not far enough to help struggling businesses.
“We appreciate that there’s change,” said Anthony Anton of the Washington Hospitality Association in a news conference later on Thursday. But, “It’s not the change that we need. Seventy-five percent of the regions will still be closed.”
Anton called on Inslee to open restaurants across the state to 50% capacity, “And at the end of the day, we know we can do these things safely.”
Implemented on Jan. 11, the latest plan divided Washington into eight regions and set four public health benchmarks that each had to meet in order to relax some restrictions. No region, however, has met those four benchmarks.
Under the new requirements, regions must meet just three of those four benchmarks to move to the second and less-restrictive phase.
The announcement allows King, Pierce and Snohomish counties — the Puget Sound region — to advance. Also moving forward is the West region, which includes Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific and Thurston counties.
Inslee also announced that the state Department of Health (DOH) would evaluate each region’s metrics every two weeks, rather than every week as originally stated.
Regions under the plan are measured by four metrics: a 10% decreasing trend in case rates during the previous 14-day period; a 10% decrease in COVID-19 hospital admission rates during the previous two-week period; an average ICU occupancy rate that’s less than 90%; and a positive-test rate of less than 10%. Those last two figures are measured on a seven-day basis.
The governor ordered a suspension of indoor dining in mid-November, as cases in Washington and around the nation began to peak.
Discussing the new measures Wednesday night in a legislative town hall, Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig credited Inslee and state residents for keeping Washington’s deaths and cases lower than the rest of the nation’s during the pandemic.
“It’s because we’re wearing masks, and we’re following the social distancing guidelines, because our governor has done a good job making decisions,” said Billig, a Democrat from Spokane. “But because of that, now we’re able to do a little additional opening.”
Even as coronavirus vaccines start to make their way from the federal government to the state, and more widely out into the community, the months ahead are likely to still see a pandemic in full force.
In a news conference of business groups responding to Inslee’s announcement, Kris Johnson of the Association of Washington Business called for more clarity from Inslee for the months ahead, beyond the current two-phase plan.
“What is the road map? How many phases? When do we return to normal?” said Johnson. “Yes, we recognize vaccines play an important part in that, but what are the next steps?”
Senate Republican Minority Leader John Braun and Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, gave the governor measured praise but pressed Inslee to move all counties to the less-restrictive phase.
In his own news conference, Inslee urged residents to have resilience for the coming months and likened the pandemic to the entire state getting into a lifeboat.
“We all got in the same lifeboat and we’ve been rowing really, really hard under a hot sun,” said Inslee. “And like you see the island, that’s your salvation.”
“We’re getting closer to it,” the governor added. “But I would say we’ve got to row harder now … to make sure we get there together.”