The Seattle area began to take nearly unprecedented measures to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus on Wednesday, as public schools serving tens of thousands of students began to shut down, and Gov. Jay Inslee banned all large public gatherings, a move that had an immediate impact on the social, economic and cultural life of the region.
They’re the strongest actions taken to date to try to contain the virus in Western Washington, which has become the epicenter of a burgeoning national crisis. And they promise to further disrupt daily life in a region already struggling to deal with an outbreak the likes of which public health officials haven’t seen in their lifetimes.
The disruptions are significant and will last for weeks, if not months.
Inslee ordered a halt to all gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. He also ordered schools statewide to immediately begin planning for potential closures in the next several days.
Just minutes after Inslee’s announcement, Seattle Public Schools, the state’s largest school district with more than 52,000 students, announced schools would close for at least two weeks. Shoreline Public Schools soon followed suit. So did Bellevue.
The Seattle Mariners were working to relocate or reschedule their season-opening homestand. The Seattle Sounders postponed their next home match. The Port of Seattle canceled two cruises and delayed the city’s cruise season. Museums closed. So did the zoo. Concerts, performances and recitals were canceled throughout the region, as arts leaders wondered how they would weather the financial blow.
But as the number of new confirmed cases of the virus continues to climb — the state reported 99 new confirmed cases on Wednesday, bringing the statewide total to 366, with 29 deaths — Inslee determined it was time to move to slow the spread of the virus.
Flanked by the leaders of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, and of King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, the governor ordered the cancellation of large church services, sporting events, concerts, festivals and conventions.
“Today I am ordering, pursuant to my emergency powers, that certain events in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties with more than 250 people are prohibited by order of the governor,” Inslee said at a King County government building in downtown Seattle. The three counties are “experiencing significant community transmission, significant outbreaks and they are large population centers.”
He said the actions Washington was taking could serve as a “template for the rest of the country” as the virus continues to spread.
The order is in effect through the end of March, Inslee said, but it is “highly likely” it will be extended beyond that time. He said that 250 is not a “magic number” but they believed that gatherings less than that size are more manageable to keep people from being closely squeezed together.
Schools, Inslee said, should be planning for how they can provide meals and other needs for students in the event that they’re forced to close in the next few days.
Stressing that the virus was “at least 10 times deadlier than the flu,” Inslee also urged individuals and businesses to continue to take voluntary social distancing steps, to increase telecommuting and to avoid unnecessary social interactions whenever possible.
“We’re going to have disturbances but we are going to get ahead of this epidemic,” Inslee said. “We have to act.”
Dr. Judith Wasserheit, chair of the University of Washington Department of Global Health, said limiting the number of people at gatherings will both decrease the number of people potentially exposed and increase the distance between people who do attend the events.
“We do not know what the right number is, but this is definitely a case of less is more,” Wasserheit said of the 250-person limit. “The smaller the group is and the less crowding there is, the more likely it is that people will stay safe and healthy.”
The order, Inslee said, is legally binding, although it relies more on “the good judgment of Washingtonians” than enforcement measures. If the state is alerted to specific instances of groups willfully ignoring the order, it will act, he said, but generally “the penalties are you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it.”
The World Health Organization labeled the coronavirus crisis a pandemic on Wednesday, and said it was “deeply concerned” about the spread of the virus, but that “all countries can still change the course” of the outbreak. President Donald Trump on Wednesday evening, suspended all travel from Europe to the United States for 30 days.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced Wednesday it was sending more than $600 million to cities, counties and states to help fight the outbreak, including more than $14 million to Washington.
The CDC also issued new recommendations for the Seattle area on Wednesday, in line with Inslee’s orders. The agency recommended dozens of actions, including limiting large gatherings, extending school spring breaks for two weeks, canceling nonurgent medical procedures and and restricting almost all visitors from assisted-living and health care facilities.
“Substantial interventions” are necessary, the CDC said, “to minimize morbidity and mortality caused by COVID-19.”
Inslee said officials have a plan to deal with a surge in patients that taxes the hospital system. Spokesman Mike Faulk said later that he couldn’t provide details.
“Discussions are ongoing – he’s literally in a meeting with health and military officials right now and this is one subject they’ll be discussing – and we’ll just have to advise if and when decisions are made.”
State law gives the governor broad power in emergencies, even though that power is rarely exercised. The law allows the governor to set curfews and to restrict gatherings in both public and private places.
The statute goes even further, giving the governor power over “such other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”
Inslee and other leaders spoke in front of a chart which marked Wednesday as the beginning of “intervention” as it showed how significant reductions in public gatherings could slow the exponential growth of the virus.
Slowing the spread would help preserve the limited capacity of the region’s health care system, so that hospitals, doctors and nurses aren’t overwhelmed with more patients than they can treat.
Limiting gatherings and social interactions will “help ensure that a public health crisis does not become a humanitarian disaster,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.
Additionally, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, under Constantine’s authority, said public gatherings of fewer than 250 people would also be prohibited unless organizers take steps to mitigate transmission of the virus. Those steps include providing hand sanitizing materials, screening employees for symptoms daily and enabling people to be 6 feet apart from one another. Retail businesses, restaurants and movie theaters can continue to operate as long as they take mitigation steps, the county said.
“We expect a large-scale outbreak in weeks and this will be a very difficult time,” Duchin said. The epidemic is “the infectious disease equivalent of a major earthquake that’s going to shake us for weeks and weeks.”
The county said it wouldn’t be actively searching for violations, but that breaking the order is a misdemeanor.
Duchin urged people to put off elective medical procedures and not go to health care facilities, even for visits, unless absolutely necessary.
He said they have no intention of trying to stop all community gatherings, and they don’t want to, but every step they take to limit social interactions reduces opportunities for the disease to spread.
Inslee’s order does not apply on Native American reservations, where tribes operate casinos and other tribal businesses. Tribes are separate sovereign entities. As such they are not subject to state regulatory authority except as Congress or the U.S. Supreme Court has delegated jurisdiction.
The Puyallup, Tulalip, Lummi and Snoqualmie casinos remain open for business, as do others.
Inslee read an email from a doctor in Italy, where the virus has overwhelmed medical systems, warning of what could happen if we don’t take drastic action.
“Stop saying it’s just flu or severe flu,” Inslee read. “Please come and see our intensive care units in northern Italy. People can’t breathe and we don’t have anywhere to put them.”
Staff writers Steve Miletich, Joseph O’Sullivan and Lynda V. Mapes contributed to this report.