OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday said Washington’s economy will likely reopen in phases once state officials believe society can safely function amid the new coronavirus.
That plan could look something like a reverse process of how the state shut down in March in response to the outbreak of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, the governor said in a news conference on the virus.
“This transition will not be a light switch, on and off, it will be a dial,” said Inslee. “And we will dial it up and down, as the data suggest and as our community responds.”
He described reopening the economy as “a phased approach” wherein some of the first things shut down during the outbreak — like large gatherings — could be the last to reopen.
“The phasing will be probably the reverse of what it was going into the effort,” Inslee said. “We started by the prohibiting large gatherings, we then closed on-site education in our schools, we then had a stay-home order in our individual lives, we then closed nonessential businesses.
“And that makes sense, because we’ll be bringing back the things that are most essential to our economic and physical and financial health,” the governor added later. “And then working out to the periphery things that might be some of the most joyful things in life, but not the most necessary to maintain our households, income and otherwise.”
Inslee gave no new details on when that might begin. The current stay-home order is in effect through the end of the day on May 4. It allowed so-called essential businesses — such as grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies — to remain open.
But in an effort to keeping people from spreading the virus, the order shuttered thousands of other businesses. And it kept in place and strengthened earlier restrictions that temporarily banned large gatherings, such as religious services, concerts and sporting events.
Meanwhile, the continuing shortage of test kits, Inslee said Wednesday, remains the biggest obstacle to reopening the economy.
“And this is a huge frustration for all of us,” said the governor. Right now, the state has the ability to analyze as many as 13,000 tests per day. But health officials are only able to conduct about 4,500 tests daily, due to the shortages, he said.
More test swabs and vials and other materials are needed for that, said Inslee. He added the state recently secured about 1 million test swabs that will be coming to the state.
Once society reopens, Washington will need the ability to test more people than right now, with the idea being to quickly identify and stop new outbreaks before they grow in size.
Inslee also touted his emergency order released earlier this week to protect vulnerable adults who are working during the outbreak.
That order temporarily provides older and medically vulnerable adults work protections, such as the right to request an alternative work assignment like telework or other alternative job locations if possible.
The order lets workers use unemployment benefits or accrued leave if no alternative work assignment is possible and that worker is unable to safely work, according to the governor’s office. Additionally, employers must maintain health insurance benefits for high-risk employees who go temporarily off the job.
Additionally, the order prohibits employers from permanently replacing high-risk employees if they use the protections while they’re in effect.
The order defines high-risk people using the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention criteria, which include people 65 years or older and people of all ages who have underlying medical conditions.
“We really want to protect this group of people,” said the governor. “They now have an option to be protected, to weather the financial storm here and then go back and get their job.”
Inslee on Wednesday also issued a pair of proclamations that will allow for the reduction of inmates in Washington’s prison system, a move intended to prevent potential outbreaks of COVID-19.
The state Department of Corrections (DOC) has said it was waiting on those orders to finalize a detailed plan for the releases, which have been criticized by some on both sides of the debate over whether to free prisoners.
That plan, ordered by the state Supreme Court, has come amid fear and unrest by prisoners and their families, particularly centered on the Monroe Correctional Complex. As of Wednesday, 10 prisoners and five corrections officers at Monroe had tested positive for the virus, according to DOC.