OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee Friday said he may have to extend restrictions beyond the statewide May 4 stay-home order to keep the coronavirus from spreading, just as sunny skies and warmer weather are calling many Washingtonians to the great outdoors.
In a news conference on the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak, Inslee said that any decisions about stay-home extensions or future restrictions have yet to be made.
“Is it possible that there will have to be actions after May 4?” Inslee said. “Certainly there is, and we will make decisions at that time based on the data and science, and how much progress we’re making.”
Inslee’s stay-home order has shuttered many activities and businesses — except some deemed essential, like grocery stores — and forced Washington’s economy to nearly halt. The order is set to expire May 5.
The move is considered necessary to keep Washington’s health care facilities from being swamped by the outbreak and prevent potentially thousands of state residents from dying. As of Friday, 475 people have died in Washington from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, and there have been 9,887 cases, according to the state Department of Health.
Inslee’s remarks came as officials braced for a weekend of beautiful weather that could entice Washingtonians to congregate in parks, on beaches or at trailheads, potentially spreading the virus.
Inslee argued that social distancing is still necessary to halt the spread of the virus, especially as people are tempted to gather together outside.
“This is a moment to enjoy a blue sky close to our home,” he said, adding later: “Please don’t congregate in some place where it can be beautiful, but you can be infected.”
In making his case for social distancing, Inslee cited projections by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation showing that if the stay-home order were prematurely lifted, deaths would rise again after an initial drop-off.
If restrictions were lifted immediately, the number of daily deaths would initially decline, but could climb back to about 15 Washington residents per day by July 1, according to the projections.
If restrictions were lifted on April 22 — roughly two weeks before the existing order is set to expire — deaths would drop before climbing to about 10 per day by July 14.
Still, as Inslee and other officials spoke, the parking lot at the Lowe’s on Rainier Avenue in South Seattle was full Friday, where one employee said it’s not exceptionally busy for springtime, but certainly “busy for the middle of a pandemic.”
McKenzie Brown, a medical biller for Swedish Health Services, went to Lowe’s for supplies to paint and re-floor her kitchen and bathroom, a project she’s been putting off for two years. Now, she has nothing to do on the weekends.
But once she got inside, Brown started feeling uncomfortable. She wore a mask and she saw employees wearing masks and gloves, and the lines of people with carts of lumber and hardware were spaced out six feet, but many shoppers were not wearing masks and got too close for comfort.
“I did feel a little like people weren’t following the social distancing,” Brown said. “There’s a lot of people in there because it’s one of the few stores open.”
Back in Olympia, Inslee was joined by officials from Ocean Shores, San Juan County, Spokane and Yakima, who urged people to stay close to home, or practice social distancing in the limited circumstances that they were going outside.
“It’s really important to all of us that people from an infected area — or from any area, because any of us could be infected — don’t come to Grays Harbor County,” said Ocean Shores Mayor Crystal Dingler, adding later: “We love you, come back and see us in the summer, when things are better. But this is not the time.”
Grays Harbor County Friday had 10 confirmed cases of COVID-19, Dingler said. Her city and the county have closed vehicle approaches to the ocean beaches, Dingler added, and the mayor has also closed hotels and RV parks to discourage visitors.
Seattle’s decision to close its 15 largest parks for the weekend, announced Thursday, raised questions and stirred opinions across the city.
“It seems ridiculous,” Brandon Sweeney said Friday, watching his 2 1/2-year-old daughter ride a scooter around the basketball courts at Green Lake Park.
The popular North Seattle spot was busy Friday afternoon, but not crowded. Parkgoers were keeping their distance from each other.
“We have two kids and the parks are our refuge to get outside and enjoy the sunshine,” Sweeney said. “We don’t want to stay inside the house all day. We have a nice house but our backyard is just a concrete patio.”
The 35-year-old business owner said he expects the city’s smaller neighborhood parks to become more congested, because “we have a finite amount of outdoor space and a finite number of sunny days in Seattle.”
Richard Hendricksen, relaxing on a wooden bench near the water, said he appreciates the choice officials made to shut down the major parks.
“I respect it,” Hendricksen, 76, said. “They’re not doing it to be mean. They’re doing it out of care for each other. If they didn’t close the parks, some people would be upset about that. Some people are always going to be upset.”
Down the path, Katherine Kim agreed. “It’s a good idea. Not a big deal,” the 32-year-old said. “They’re just trying to keep everyone safe and we’re in a pandemic. You can just run in your neighborhood.”
Not all Seattle neighborhoods have sidewalks to run and walk on, and not all residents have gardens to tend, noted Melissa Hall, who lives in Fremont and shared concerns about the city’s park closures on social media. Inslee has deemed exercise an essential activity.
“The problem is that we have to have the space for this essential activity,” Hall said, suggesting the city close some streets to cars or open golf courses for people to use as parks. “If you have crowding, it is because there isn’t enough. Taking 40% away isn’t a realistic answer.”
Though the 15 major parks will be closed this weekend, their restrooms will remain open, Mayor Jenny Durkan’s office said, and the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homeless noted in a Facebook post.
The coalition has asked Durkan’s office to instruct police officers to not accost people in the closed parks who have nowhere else to be, the post said.
Resting between a run around the lake and some agility drills on the grass at Green Lake Park, Kaitlin Jackson said she could see both sides. “Exercise keeps people healthy,” said Jackson, 29, who treks from downtown to Green Lake regularly. “We’re running out of options at home. There are only so many squat and pushup variations you can do.” At the same time, “I don’t blame the city. I don’t mind giving this up for the weekend.”
In Friday’s news conference, Inslee said most businesses so far were complying with the stay-home order. Nonessential businesses in violation of the stay-home order could be found guilty a gross misdemeanor, though the governor has said he would use force of law only as a last resort.
“There’s been just a smattering of businesses who have not complied and they’ve been contacted by our emergency command authority,” said Inslee. “And almost all of them … , after a call, agreed to join the rest of Washington.”
Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett said late last month that he and other law enforcement officials were getting reports of people gathering in violation of the stay-home restrictions.
But Mylett said officers were so far only informing people of the restrictions, rather than arresting or citing them.
Times staff writer Scott Greenstone contributed to this report.