King County has taken another step in easing restrictions put in place to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.
Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman on Friday morning approved King County’s application, submitted Monday evening, to move to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase Safe Start reopening plan. It is the last county in Western Washington to do so.
The second phase allows restaurants and taverns to operate at half capacity with seating restrictions; hair and nail salons, barber shops, tattoo parlors and pet groomers to operate at half capacity; and retail stores to allow in-store purchases at 30% capacity. Domestic service providers such as house cleaners and nannies can return to work, with restrictions, as can manufacturers, construction workers and real estate agents. Phase 2 also allows additional outdoor recreation, indoor religious services with restrictions, and one gathering per week with no more than five people from outside a single household.
There is always risk when moving from one phase to another, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County, said Monday afternoon ahead of the county health board’s unanimous vote to apply for Phase 2.
Duchin cautioned that people should continue to stay at least 6 feet apart, wash their hands and wear masks.
Inslee’s stay-home order began March 23 and is now being relaxed — gradually, piecemeal — across the state. Three of Washington’s 39 counties remain in the first phase, two are in a modified Phase 1 (as King County was before Friday morning), 19 are in Phase 2 and 15 are in Phase 3.
The timeline for each county’s reopening is at the state’s discretion. In general, counties have been allowed to progress to the next phase if they have declining infection levels, adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, space in hospitals, ample testing capacity and a contact-tracing system to notify close contacts of infected people.
King County’s advancement comes despite a 47% increase in diagnoses between June 12 and June 18, compared to the previous seven-day period. The 113 new cases come from all parts of the county, with young adults and Seattle residents accounting for the largest increases, Duchin said during a news conference Friday afternoon.
While that increase is worrisome, it doesn’t mean King County should step back from the second phase, Duchin said, noting that COVID-19-related hospitalizations and deaths haven’t shown similar spikes.
“If we start to see more cases, spreading into the vulnerable populations that end up in the hospital and our hospital beds filling up, that will be a very serious red flag for us that we need to do something different,” he said.
Duchin didn’t attribute the rise in cases to the recent mass protests against systemic racism and police violence. Increased activity from reopening could be behind it, he said, and exposure to someone else within the same household was a commonly reported factor among cases whose origins are known.
Epidemiologists with Public Health – Seattle & King County discovered the additional cases at 10 p.m. Thursday, three days after King County applied to enter Phase 2 and the night before its approval was announced.
Contact tracing, a crucial factor in tracking the spread of the virus, was abandoned by King County in March but recently restarted, with the state assisting King and six other counties in ramping up contact tracing efforts. On its application to move to a modified Phase 1 in early June, King County was meeting its contact-tracing goals, something that isn’t happening across the state.
King County on Monday reported 24.8 cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents, just under the threshold of 25 set by the state for moving to the second phase. That limit was initially 10 cases per 100,000 people, but the rule was loosened at the beginning of this month.
Also Friday morning, Wiesman approved Island, Lewis and Mason counties moving to the third phase.
Benton and Franklin counties have applied for the second phase, but their applications are on hold because of the rising number of cases in those counties.
Although indoor religious services are now allowed in King County — at 25% capacity or 200 people, whichever is smaller — not every house of worship is jumping to open its doors.
Worship at Temple De Hirsch Sinai in Bellevue and Seattle likely won’t happen until there is a vaccine or herd immunity, said Rabbi Daniel Weiner, the senior rabbi for both synagogues.
“What is required for a full-range faith experience will jeopardize people’s health,” Weiner said.
Offering online services instead protects older people, who are at higher risk from COVID-19, and actually allows for more intimate interactions, Weiner said.
“There is an ability to see people’s faces and hear their voices in a much more intensive way that we don’t always do in person,” Weiner said.
Retail stores, many of which have been offering curbside pickup during the “modified Phase 1,” can now let customers inside at 30% of a building’s occupancy (or lower, depending on the fire code).
Nordstrom plans to open all 15 of its Washington stores by the end of the month. The downtown Seattle flagship store is set to open Tuesday, June 23.
In addition to limiting capacity, Nordstrom is offering masks to employees and customers, though not requiring them, and screening employees before they start work.
“We’ve been paying close attention to guidance and directives from local and national authorities, taking steps to ensure our stores and operations remain in alignment with those,” company spokesperson Anna Brown wrote in an email.
Rules for real estate have also been relaxed slightly with the move to Phase 2. For example, three people (including the agent or realtor) are now allowed at by-appointment showings, rather than two.
Nate Pearson, the managing broker at Ewing & Clark, said not much will change about the way he’s been selling homes since Inslee’s stay-home order went into effect in March.
“The days of meeting at the office and writing up an offer just don’t happen anymore,” he said.
Correction: This story has been updated to correct the capacity at which personal services such as barbers, hair salons and nail salons may operate in Phase 2.