And on the 476th day, Washington returned — sort of, mostly, cautiously, officially if not practically — to normal.
On March 11, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee told schools to get ready to shut down and banned all large gatherings in the Puget Sound region, making Washington among the first states in the nation to impose broad economic and social restrictions to combat the coronavirus pandemic. More severe mandates soon followed.
One year, three months, two weeks and five days later, the last of those major restrictions melted away on Wednesday.
Restaurants and bars can pack in the diners again. Theaters and museums can throw their doors open. Social distancing: Buh-bye. Mandatory masks: Mostly out. Concerts, crowds, full capacities: In.
Limited restrictions remain in place, including for indoor events of 10,000 or more people. Unvaccinated people will still have to wear masks at indoor work places.
And masks will still be required for everyone — regardless of vaccination status — on public transit and in schools, health care facilities, long-term care facilities and child care centers.
There is no flipping a switch. No easy toggle from pandemic back to business as usual. If the virus and government-issued restrictions pulled the emergency brake on Washington’s economic and social life, it will take more than just releasing that lever to get the engine back to full throttle.
Scenes around the Puget Sound area on Wednesday — at ceremonies, in restaurants, movie theaters, museums, gyms and barber shops — showed a region no longer bound by legal restrictions, but still far from cultural normalcy.
Sarita Sylvester sipped a margarita Wednesday afternoon in the pandemic-created outdoor seating at La Carta De Oaxaca in Ballard. She’s vaccinated but brings her mask with her, sometimes wearing it even when not required, she said, to be considerate of others.
“I’m excited. I think everybody is really pumped for things to be back to normal but in a mindful way. Nothing needs to blast open.”
In Tacoma, Inslee kicked off a planned three-city mini-tour celebrating the end of the restrictions. There were food trucks and pizza and burgers.
“We are in the City of Destiny, saying it is our destiny to reopen Washington, and we are realizing that destiny today,” Inslee said to a cheering crowd at Tacoma’s Wright Park. “We are open, big-time, in the state of Washington.”
A new “Washington Ready” flag was raised atop the Tacoma Dome. Inslee was scheduled to hit Spokane Wednesday afternoon and Seattle on Thursday.
Speaking before the governor made his remarks, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards hushed the crowd for a moment of silence for those killed by the pandemic, more than 5,900 in Washington. She thanked health care workers, teachers, bus drivers, grocery workers and others for whom Washington never really “closed.”
“We know that there were countless COVID heroes showing up and doing what needed to be done during the pandemic,” Woodards said.
For many businesses, the expiration of the long-lasting restrictions brought a wave of relief, but didn’t necessarily mean a return to pre-pandemic patterns.
The loosening of mask restrictions was a huge relief for Jackie Xu, who works at 663 Bistro in Seattle’s Chinatown International District.
“I wish it came a few days earlier,” Xu said. “Wearing masks in a heat wave … inside the kitchen it was like 100 [degrees].”
Xu was a lot more comfortable Wednesday as he stacked steaming baskets of pork buns and handled the orders of a small queue of customers inside the restaurant, all still masked.
But Washington’s reopening may prove far less powerful than its initial shutdown for 663 Bistro. It stayed open through the pandemic by changing the restaurant entirely, axing sit-down dining and adding dim sum to bolster a new takeout-only menu.
Now, even as most restrictions are lifted, Xu’s not sure things will return to the way they were before. The income is about the same, he said, and it’s been hard to find additional servers or other staff.
“People don’t want to work for minimum wage,” he said. “We’re not like some big corporation.”
That means that it’s been up to Xu and a friend to help Xu’s father keep the restaurant — a 15-year family business — going.
“You have to depend a lot more on family,” Xu said.
Local museums are opening their doors wider, no longer confined to 50% capacity restrictions, but still retaining some of their pandemic-induced changes.
Both the Seattle Art Museum and the National Nordic Museum will keep parts of their timed-ticketing systems, but with limited on-site tickets newly available. The Nordic museum will keep the prescribed path it set up to keep visitors socially distanced, but will remove some stanchions, giving visitors “a little bit more freedom to explore.”
The Northwest African American Museum has no plans to reopen but will continue with virtual programming, said spokesperson Patrice Bell.
Some movie theaters jumped at the newfound opportunity to sell all their seats.
Earlier this week, local AMC theaters were blocking off seats in their online reservation systems, heeding capacity restrictions. On Wednesday, all seats were available.
The local cinema chain Far Away Entertainment, whose theaters include the Admiral in West Seattle and the Varsity in the University District, is now operating at 100% capacity.
For others, Washington’s official reopening was more theoretical than practical.
The Majestic Bay in Ballard will reopen July 2 after more than a 15-month shutdown. They will initially operate at just 50% capacity, operator Aaron Alhadeff said, although he expects to soon move to 100%. Staff will stay masked. Vaccinated patrons won’t have to. The situation is complicated, Alhadeff said, particularly for families with children under 12 who can’t yet be vaccinated.
Many of Seattle’s independent cinemas — Northwest Film Forum, The Beacon, The Grand Illusion, the Uptown and the Egyptian — will remain closed to public showings for at least a little longer.
Pat Gilbrough, owner of the Ballard Health Club, said the eased restrictions won’t change much at his gym. Business is always down in the warm summer months, he said, and wouldn’t have exceeded 50% capacity in any case. He hasn’t been requiring his vaccinated customers (which he estimates at 95% of his clientele) to wear masks, but will continue to require the unvaccinated to wear them.
Alicia Haskins, director of Rainier Health and Fitness, said she’d make a decision by the end of the day about which restrictions to drop.
Some people have been asking her to remove her mask rules, while others have told her the restrictions make them feel safer.
“It feels like we’ve been put in a very tough decision,” she said. “It’s on the business to decide policy on masks.”
At Idris Mosque, in Seattle’s Northgate neighborhood, people wore masks as they filed in and out of daily prayers. Othman Riad, who lives nearby, said he missed Ramadan services last year for the first time in his life as the pandemic shut down the mosque.
This year, he had to register daily to attend services to ensure the mosque didn’t exceed capacity.
“It was tough, to be honest,” Riad said. “For you to not be able to go to the place you always go to pray, it’s like an emptiness. Like something is missing.”
Down the block, at Gifted Cutz barbershop, neither employees nor customers are required to wear masks anymore. But owner Will Barker said he’s still gauging comfort levels. “If I had a customer that’s like, ‘Hey, can you wear a mask?’ I’ll wear a mask.”
Barker said business has been steady, but he thinks it’s about to get busier. “When the government says something, that’s when people start following.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Megan Burbank, Moira Macdonald, Joseph O’Sullivan, Akash Pasricha, Daniel Wu, Jade Yamazaki Stewart and Daisy Zavala contributed to this report.