OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced expanded criteria that can allow more Washington counties to reopen more quickly under his four-phase coronavirus recovery plan.
That expansion will potentially allow 10 more of Washington’s 39 counties to reopen. It could greatly expand the number of Washington businesses able to resume operations quickly under safety guidelines intended to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Those businesses — which range from hair salons, restaurants and retail stores, to personal and professional services — have been restricted or shuttered since Inslee’s stay-at-home order went into effect March 23.
In Tuesday’s news conference, Inslee said the move “obviously is happily going to allow more economic opportunity” for counties that get permission to speed up their reopening, “while still really providing the protections we need for the health of our citizens.”
All told, the counties eligible to apply to reopen represent about 30% of Washington’s population, Inslee said.
With 10 small counties already given permission by the state to reopen more quickly — and two others previously eligible — Tuesday’s announcement means that a total of 22 counties have the potential to start reopening.
The criteria allow counties with fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents across a 14-day period to apply with the state Department of Health (DOH) to reopen ahead of other counties.
The new counties now eligible to apply with DOH are: Adams, Spokane, Mason, Thurston, Lewis, Clark, Clallam, Kitsap, Island and San Juan counties.
Counties given permission by DOH move to the second phase of Inslee’s plan, while others are still operating under the first phase. To get permission, counties must show, among other things, they have the hospital capacity to handle a resurgence of COVID-19.
Under the second phase, restaurants can reopen with some sit-down dining, retailers can proceed with some in-store purchases and pet groomers can being working again. Many professional and personal services — from barbershops, hairstylists and tattoo artists to attorneys, architects and IT professionals — can resume with safety protocols in place.
Inslee and state health officials have said most counties would move to the second phase on June 1, provided public health metrics — like COVID-19 cases and data like hospital capacity — looked favorable.
By Monday evening, 10 smaller Washington counties had gotten permission from DOH to move to the second phase.
Those counties, which have populations of less than 75,000 and had reported no confirmed COVID-19 cases for three weeks, are: Asotin, Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Stevens, Wahkiakum and Whitman counties.
Grays Harbor and Jefferson counties have also been eligible to reopen under that criteria, Inslee said, but as of Tuesday hadn’t submitted applications to do so.
Inslee announced his four-part plan when he extended the current stay-at-home order through May 31, and most counties remain under the first phase. For those counties, retail stores are allowed to perform curbside delivery, some construction and car washes have restarted and 100 state parks have reopened for day use, among other activities.
Businesses can reopen only after the governor’s office issues safety guidelines for those sectors.
That gradual approach directed by Inslee and public health officials has frustrated Republicans pushing to reopen the economy more quickly in the wake of a steep rise in unemployment, shuttered businesses and alarming estimates of a state budget shortfall.
Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, has said Inslee’s office is trying to handle too much internally by trying to issue guidance to different business sectors.
“I think his intentions are good … but I think he’s taking a very centralized approach, and frankly that means he’s leaving some of his best players on the bench,” Braun said earlier this month.
He argued that state officials should issue broad safety guidelines that need to be followed, “unleashing the power of the people” to find their own innovative ways to restart businesses.
Starting with the second phase of Inslee’s plan, health officials have said they want to see three weeks before further phases begin, to gauge the impact on public health metrics for the virus.
The third phase in the plan would allow, among other things, nonessential travel, gatherings of up to 50 people and a resumption of indoor sporting activities. Libraries and museums could reopen, bars could resume seating patrons at up to 25% capacity and movie theaters and indoor gyms could start at up to 50% capacity.
The fourth phase allows the resumption of most public interactions — including concerts and large sporting events — but social distancing measures would still be necessary.
A full list of reopening guidelines can be found at: https://www.governor.wa.gov/issues/issues/covid-19-resources/covid-19-reopening-guidance-businesses-and-workers.
Business operators and owners who have questions about the reopening guidelines or financial assistance can submit inquiries here: https://app.smartsheet.com/b/form/2562f1caf5814c46a6bf163762263aa5.