King County should plan on being moved back to the second phase of Washington’s three-phase COVID-19 reopening plan, forcing restaurants, churches, gyms, museums and theaters to trim their capacity, the county’s director of public health said Tuesday.
The possible backslide comes as case numbers and hospitalizations continue to rise in King County and statewide, amid what Gov. Jay Inslee last week called the state’s fourth wave of the pandemic.
Under Inslee’s newest reopening plan, announced in January and amended in March, counties are assessed every three weeks to make sure they’re meeting virus benchmarks.
Counties are due for their next assessment on Monday.
“I wanted to alert the council that barring something different coming from the governor, that we should expect that the announcement next week will be that King County will be moved back to phase two,” Patty Hayes, director of Public Health – Seattle & King County, told the Metropolitan King County Council Tuesday. “We might as well just get prepared for that and not just wait.”
Inslee’s office made no commitments.
Tara Lee, an Inslee spokesperson, said the decision would be made on Monday and would include data from the weekend. She also said that if counties see concerning trends, they have the option of moving themselves back a phase at any time, without waiting for the state. No counties have done that so far.
“We are concerned about rising numbers in all parts of Washington and people should continue to wear a mask, physically distance, take activities outside and get vaccinated,” Lee said.
King County is currently above the thresholds for large counties for both reported coronavirus cases and for hospitalizations for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
As of Tuesday morning, the county was showing 229 coronavirus cases per 100,000 residents over the last 14 days, and 5.5 new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 residents over the last seven days. To stay in the third phase, large counties are supposed to be under 200 cases per 100,000 residents and under five hospitalizations.
As cases subsided in March, Inslee moved the entire state to phase 3, allowing restaurants to fill half their indoor tables for the first time in a year and allowing the Mariners to play in front of (limited) crowds.
But since then, cases have been increasing.
Earlier this month, Inslee moved Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman counties back to the second phase.
In King County, Hayes said the rising numbers come not from any specific cause, but a general increase in people’s activity. The number of cases remains highest in South King County, she said, “we’re actually seeing a range of upticks throughout the county.”
The increase in cases comes as public health officials race to increase vaccinations.
Case counts are increasing fastest in age groups where, because of past eligibility requirements, people are less likely to be vaccinated. Case counts are largest in the 30 to 50 age group, Hayes said, but they’re also seeing spikes in illness in younger people.
Vaccinations, which are free and do not require health insurance, are open to everyone age 16 and over.
Nearly 40% of King County residents, age 16 and up, are now fully vaccinated, Hayes said, and 61% have had at least one shot.
A move back to phase 2 would mean restaurants and many other indoor businesses would have to cut back to 25% capacity, from the 50% they’re currently allowed.
Looking at statewide metrics, Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, estimated that perhaps six other counties would also be rolled back.
“It’s just more tough news in a tough 14-month window,” Anton said. “This is going to hurt.”
Councilmember Rod Dembowski worried that the economics wouldn’t work for many restaurants and they’d have to lay off people who may have just recently returned to work.
“That just could be devastating for a lot of workers and businesses,” he said.
Councilmember Kathy Lambert said the news of a possible backslide, coming on the same day the federal government loosened mask guidance for people who are vaccinated, struck a discordant note.
“It’s confusing to say OK, you can take your mask off but we’re going backwards and the phases are getting more restrictive,” Lambert said. “People’s patience is getting short on this.”