All but six of Washington’s 39 counties will now be able to loosen COVID-19 restrictions and bring back limited indoor dining and live entertainment, and reopen gyms, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday.
In a news conference, Inslee said that five of the eight regions in his latest reopening plan for Washington would advance to the second, less-restrictive phase.
Effective Sunday, the move will bring limited indoor dining, live entertainment and other activities to broad swaths of Washington. The regions that will move forward are East, North, North Central, Northwest and Southwest.
Meanwhile the West and Puget Sound regions — which include King, Pierce, Snohomish, Thurston and three other counties — have already advanced to the second phase. Those regions will remain in that phase.
“Today is a very good day for being able to have businesses open and customers being able to have more access,” said Inslee during the news conference. “It’s a good day to give some financial assistance to these hard-hurt businesses that have been so innovative” throughout the pandemic.
Restrictions around the state are lifting as officials race to vaccinate people with a limited supply of doses even as new, more contagious variants of the virus begin to spread. Those new variants mean a fourth wave is likely to hit, researchers have said.
State health officials Thursday reported 1,490 new coronavirus cases and 30 deaths in Washington, bringing the total diagnoses to 326,159, including 4,633 deaths. A total of 18,531 people have been hospitalized in the state due to the virus.
With Thursday’s announcement, only the South Central region — which includes Benton, Franklin, Columbia, Kittitas, Walla Walla and Yakima counties — will remain in the first and more restrictive phase. That phase prohibits indoor dining at restaurants and general admission at live entertainment venues, and fitness centers can operate on an appointment-only basis.
In a statement, Sen. Sharon Brown, R-Kennewick, blasted the decision to keep the region in the first phase.
“This is heartbreaking news for the Tri-Cities,” said Brown in prepared remarks. “Moving to Phase 2 would have given our small-business owners and their workers a glimmer of hope in the midst of this pandemic shutdown.
“If the governor means what he says about wanting to open up the rest of the state, he should immediately make more vaccines and additional resources available to our region,” she added.
For counties in the second phase, restaurants can bring back indoor service at 25% capacity through 11 p.m. Indoor fitness centers and live entertainment venues — such as bowling alleys, museums, and concert halls — can also open up at 25% capacity. Establishments that only serve alcohol and no food, however, are to remain closed.
In a statement Thursday, Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, praised the governor’s announcement but pushed for more reopening.
“The Governor’s announcement today to move most of the state to Phase II is great news for public health and for our industry,” said Anton in prepared remarks. “In the areas of our state that have been reopened, we’ve seen cases continue to drop as gatherings have moved to regulated, safe establishments. Yet we know we have more work to do: We must allow safe gathering spaces in every area of the state.”
As counties around the state ease restrictions, residents, businesses, schools and health care workers are about to get more government aid.
Inslee Thursday also announced the distribution of an additional $43.5 million for rental assistance and $43.5 million to assist businesses hurt by the pandemic. The money comes from the state’s disaster response account.
And the governor hailed the Legislature’s passage Thursday of a $2.2 billion coronavirus aid bill, made up mostly of federal dollars.
The legislation — which the governor said he’ll sign likely next week — provides dollars to help increase vaccine distribution and contact tracing, aid schools, and assist landlords, renters and small businesses.
As of Thursday morning, around 987,000 doses of the vaccine have been distributed in Washington — which has a population of about 7.65 million — according to Inslee’s office. That includes both first and second doses.
The state is starting to focus more on people who have received a first dose, said Inslee, to make sure they get their second shot.
Seattle Times food writer Tan Vinh contributed to this report.