OLYMPIA — Vehicle dealers resuming sales. Religious groups offering drive-in services. Some car washes reopening.
Gov. Jay Inslee this week continued lifting restrictions in his stay-home order meant to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, part of phase one in his four-phase plan to reopen the state. Some outdoor recreation opened earlier this week.
By the end of Friday, Inslee’s office will be trying to issue guidance to restart the remaining phase-one businesses, according to Nick Streuli, Inslee’s external relations director. That would allow landscapers and pet walkers back to work, and for retail stores to offer curbside pickup.
While the stay-home order is in effect through May 31, the plan anticipates many restrictions being in place weeks longer — and only lifting them when public health data shows the outbreak has been sufficiently tamped down.
Guidance for restarting some businesses listed in phase two of the reopening — which could begin soon in some less-affected rural counties, if their plans are approved — could also come as early as Friday, according to Streuli.
But the flurry of activity hits as residents, businesses, Inslee’s office and other government officials try to navigate confusion and uncertainty on the way to resuming commerce amid a pandemic.
State health officials Thursday confirmed 326 new COVID-19 cases and 21 more deaths. Those numbers bring Washington’s totals to 16,231 confirmed cases and 891 fatalities. So far, 230,680 tests for the illness have been conducted in the state, according to the Department of Health (DOH) data. About 7% have returned positive.
Republicans, along with some business owners and a handful of Democrats in rural Washington, continue to say the reopening is too slow.
That frustration was on full view midweek, when Brown Bear Car Wash sent an email to its customers blasting Inslee for not allowing the chain of 51 washes to open. The email claimed the governor’s office had “revoked” their safety plan.
By late Thursday afternoon, Inslee’s office had issued guidance allowing Brown Bear and other car washes to reopen with safety protocols.
In an email, Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee wrote, “We have stated clearly from the beginning that no business can reopen until we issue the guidance.”
“We have not revoked any plan – this isn’t an approval process,” Lee wrote, adding that the governor’s office develops guidance along with state health and safety officials.
In an interview, company owner Lance Odermat said that since sending out the email to customers, his safety plan had been approved by Inslee’s office and, “We think it’s something we can absolutely live with.”
Odermat, whose father founded Brown Bear in Seattle, said reopening can be quick, but complicated. Staffers — whom Odermat said he has continued to pay during the shutdown — must get complex plumbing and electrical systems back online. The state, he said, should have been planning for the reopening sooner.
Regardless, Odermat was looking forward to opening, saying, “It’d be nice to get some cash flow going, to break even.”
The governor’s office has been meeting with industry groups and labor representatives, as well as DOH and the state Department of Labor and Industries, to draft safety plans, Streuli said. The goal, he said, is to get those two agencies to “feel like we’ve got criteria that keep people safe.”
The safety guidance announced Wednesday evening for car dealerships requires some of the process to be done remotely, such as reviewing purchase options and completing financing applications and other documentation, according to the requirements.
That guidance applies to retailers and wholesalers of new and used vehicles, as well as motor vessels, according to other guidance on the issue.
Inslee Wednesday evening also released guidance allowing some drive-up religious services to proceed. It requires people to remain in their cars with the windows up, unless they are more than 6 feet from the person conducting the service, according to a copy of that guidance.
No more than 10 people can be in the vehicle while attending services, and they must be members of the same household. No food or beverages are allowed during services, meaning, for example, that participants can’t take Communion.
Meanwhile, a handful of small Washington counties considered eligible to reopen more quickly have applied to do so with the DOH, according to the governor’s office. As of Thursday, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Kittitas, Lincoln and Pend Oreille counties had applied.
Those counties are among 10 that meet criteria — populations of 75,000 or less, and no new confirmed COVID-19 cases for three weeks — originally laid out by Inslee to move to phase two of reopening before the expected June 1 date.
In an email, Inslee spokesman Mike Faulk wrote, “nothing approved yet…but DOH is reviewing these things furiously and there may be news soon enough, I just don’t know exactly when at the moment.”
The governor’s office has said it might expand that criteria to allow other counties to reopen. And one county that doesn’t currently meet the criteria, northeastern Washington’s Stevens County, also applied to reopen early, according to Faulk.
Phase two of reopening would allow, among other things, the start of new construction, the opening of barbershops and hair salons, restaurants opening to 50% capacity and tables of five or fewer people, and some in-store retail purchases.
Combined with earlier steps by Inslee — which allowed some construction, nonurgent surgeries and some outdoor activities to resume — this week’s moves will slowly begin to thaw a state economy frozen by the COVID-19 outbreak.
More than 810,000 state workers have now filed for unemployment insurance since the beginning of Washington’s outbreak, almost three times the number during the Great Recession.