OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday he would extend Washington’s stay-home order through May 31, but is seeking ways for some businesses to open before then, as he and state officials try to keep the new coronavirus from roaring back.
“If we stick together for a while longer, we don’t lose the gains we’ve already made,” Inslee said, acknowledging that restrictions on daily life have been challenging for many Washingtonians. “It’s so frustrating, we don’t want to do this twice.”
Inslee’s announcement comes as he and others try to chart a delicate course between a virus that has now killed more than 60,000 Americans, according to numbers by the federal government, and a state economy decimated by the closing of society and commerce. And it comes as some states around the nation begin relaxing restrictions in an effort to curb economic harm.
The governor has cited a slew of models and metrics that inform his decision-making, including the daily number of new confirmed cases, as well as COVID-19 fatalities, hospital data and projections for how the virus may spread. But Inslee has not given specific numbers he’s looking for before easing restrictions. He said he wants a combination of favorable numbers across the data.
In the plan issued Friday, Washington’s economy and social life would reopen in four phases, with some types of businesses ideally beginning to reopen in mid-May as the first phase even as the stay-home order remains until the end of the month.
Those businesses include retail stores able to offer curbside pickup. Automobile sales and car washes would reopen, with some restrictions. The governor also intends to allow drive-in spiritual services with one household per vehicle.
Beginning next week, additional outdoor activities will be allowed, Inslee said, but the ban on large gatherings would remain in place.
Each phase for reopening will take at least three weeks, an amount of time long enough, the governor said, to let officials see if the approach is working. Consequently, the dates for each phase were not announced.
Inslee also announced that counties not hit hard by the virus could ask the state to begin reopening at a faster rate, provided they meet certain criteria. Ten counties currently meet preliminary criteria for that option, Inslee said: Columbia, Garfield, Jefferson, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Kittitas, Ferry, Grays Harbor and Wahkiakum.
The measures were not likely to soothe Republicans, who have grown increasingly frustrated with the coronavirus restrictions and concerned about the economic fallout.
In a statement, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville panned much of Inslee’s approach and contended that more businesses currently closed could operate responsibly with protective measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Republicans believe these businesses would follow the steps we’ve seen grocery stores and big-box stores and others take,” Schoesler said in prepared remarks, adding later: “if he wants to bet on success, why is he forcing so many employers to remain on a path that could easily end in their failure?”
Meanwhile, Kris Johnson of the Association of Washington Business in a statement said he appreciated steps Inslee had already taken in recent days to reopen parts of the state, such as resuming some construction and medical procedures.
But, “With each passing day, we become more concerned about the economic damage our state is suffering as a result of this pandemic,” Johnson, president of the organization, said in prepared remarks. “Restarting the economy, and then rebuilding it, are monumental challenges, so everything we can do now to mitigate further damage will help in the long-term effort.”
Johnson urged the governor to consider reopening the manufacturing sector “sooner rather than later,” calling it critical to the state’s economy.
The governor’s stay-at-home order had been set to expire at the end of the day May 4. Put in place March 23, Inslee already had extended the restrictions once as state officials tried to dampen the outbreak of COVID-19 that has killed more than 800 Washingtonians and sickened thousands.
The second phase of Inslee’s plan would allow for the opening of hair salons and barbershops, and restaurants to 50% capacity and tables of no more than five people. New construction could begin, and some in-store retail purchases could resume. This phase would also allow for additional outdoor and social activities to resume, such as camping and gatherings of five or fewer people.
The third phase, among other things, would allow gatherings of 50 people or fewer, as well as a resumption of indoor sports activities and non-essential travel.
A fourth phase would allow the resumption of most public interactions, but social distancing measures would still be necessary.
The governor had earlier announced he wouldn’t yet lift the stay-home order, saying public-health data — such as the number of daily confirmed cases, and the transmission rate of the virus in King County — have not yet been favorable enough.
The governor Wednesday unveiled a website showing a slew of metrics that informed his decision-making about reopening broadly, including COVID-19 hospital admissions, fatalities from the disease, the percentage of people in the hospital with COVID-19 like symptoms and the percentage of people testing positive.
But Inslee did not give specific benchmarks. Instead, he said a combination of favorable data would be needed for allow for restrictions to relax.
Polls nationwide have generally shown Americans in favor of restrictions intended to prevent the spread the coronavirus. In Washington, an Elway Research poll of 405 registered voters that was conducted April 18-20, found 75% said Inslee’s coronavirus response was “good” or “satisfactory.” Meanwhile, 21% rated the governor’s actions as “poor” or “unsatisfactory.” Conducted the news organization Crosscut, that poll reported 61% were wary of opening up the economy too soon.
Inslee has opened up some activities in the past week. He has allowed some construction projects and nonurgent medical procedures to resume, reopened some state lands for recreation and given the go-ahead for hunting, fishing and golfing.
The 10 largely-rural counties that have not been as heavily affected by the outbreak will be allowed to apply for a variance with the Department of Health to move to the second phase and reopen businesses sooner than other counties.
The announcement comes as Washington in recent days has seen roughly 150 to 300 daily confirmed new cases of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the state’s economy has taken a hard hit, as thousands of businesses closed under the stay-at-home order and more than one in five workers have filed for unemployment.
Demonstrators, among them Republican lawmakers, have rallied against the governor’s stay-at-home order. Protesters on Friday gathered at the state Capitol. One carried a sign that read: “FEAR IS THE REAL VIRUS.”
“The governor should no longer be making decisions by himself,” said state Rep. Jesse Young, R- Gig Harbor, during a rally. More than 2,000 people gathered at another demonstration in Olympia in mid-April.
Meanwhile, GOP gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman along with some others Friday filed a lawsuit against the governor in federal court, alleging that Inslee’s stay-home order has imposed “unacceptable tyranny.”
Staff reporter Evan Bush contributed.