OLYMPIA — Washington is on course to lift its broad COVID-19 economic restrictions by June 30, if not sooner. And starting immediately, fully vaccinated people will have fewer requirements regarding mask-wearing, and can attend weddings, funerals and sporting events without limits on capacity.
The announcements made Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee landed just hours after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a leap toward a return to pre-pandemic life, saying fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.
As he sat down at his conference table in the Capitol, Inslee removed his face mask, a staple worn at public appearances since the end of last June, even when holding virtual news conferences like Thursday’s event. That has been one of the governor’s many efforts this past year as he pleaded, urged and occasionally lectured Washingtonians to follow public-health guidelines throughout the peaks and valleys of case counts and fatalities.
The combined changes now put a post-pandemic reality firmly on the horizon, after more than a year of grief over illnesses and deaths, combined with the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic and restrictions intended to curb the virus.
A full reopening would come sooner if 70% or more of state residents over the age of 16 have gotten at least their first shot before then, said the governor. Currently, 57% of Washingtonians 16 and up have gotten at least one shot, according to Inslee’s office. Inslee credited a recent plateau in the fourth wave of Washington’s cases that has now turned into a decline in virus activity. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of residents are vaccinated and doses for others are readily available.
“We know that vaccines are fundamental to this next chapter of this journey, so we don’t have to rely on social distancing and restrictions,” said Inslee.
“We are confident this can work, but we need everyone to pull on the rope here,” Inslee added. “We don’t want to see this pandemic coming back.”
Washington will also adopt the CDC’s guidelines, Inslee said, and starting immediately, the state is easing restrictions for groups of fully vaccinated people.
The announcements by the CDC and Inslee on masking caught some in the medical community off-guard.
“As somebody who’s been living and breathing COVID for the whole bloody show, this was a big surprise to me — and a good one; a welcome surprise,” said Dr. Paul Pottinger, professor of infectious disease at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
But the transition to using masks less often will take some adjustment, Pottinger said, now that they have become a habit.
“The first change that was hard was to wear a mask. Getting out of a mask is painful too,” Pottinger said, adding that fully vaccinated people should feel free to take this new freedom at their own pace. “That’s fine. There’s no pressure to take off your mask.”
Pottinger added that people with compromised immune systems who are fully vaccinated should consider taking the same precautions as people who remain unvaccinated.
Those weren’t the only announcements on Thursday.
Events like outdoor and indoor sports won’t have limits on the number of attendees who have been vaccinated, Inslee said. Likewise, weddings and funerals will be allowed at full capacity if the attendees have all been vaccinated.
And cruise ships with fewer than 250 passengers will be able to sail if the crew and 95% of passengers have been vaccinated.
Counties going to third phase
Additionally, starting Tuesday and until a full reopening date is set, all of Washington’s 39 counties will be in the third and least-restrictive phase of the governor’s current “Healthy Washington” plan.
Most counties — including King and Snohomish — are in the third phase, which allows indoor spaces like stores, venues, restaurants and fitness centers to operate at 50% capacity.
But counties and businesses have faced an uncertain few months as Washington experienced a fourth surge. Just two weeks ago, King County was seeing public-health metrics that would have driven indoor occupancy down to 25% under the Healthy Washington plan.
Meanwhile, a handful of counties — including Pierce — last month moved back to tighter restrictions amid a surge in new coronavirus cases, capping their indoor occupancy at 25%.
In a statement, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers applauded the announcements.
“It’s been a long, hard year of battling the pandemic, and now we can see a bright light at the end of the tunnel,” said Somers in prepared remarks. “The governor’s announcement today just confirms that getting vaccinated will be the quickest way to end the restrictions, fully open up our economy, and get everyone back to work.”
In a statement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan credited the successes so far in getting vaccine doses to people.
“Our new normal is coming in June, and it’s because of our communitywide commitment to getting vaccinated,” she said in prepared remarks. “The home stretch is here.”
Conservatives have throughout the pandemic chafed at the governor’s broad use of emergency powers and exclusion of Republicans in determining the pandemic response. Thursday’s announcement didn’t bring relief on that end, as the governor said his emergency proclamation would stay in place for now.
State House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said Thursday he would have liked to see the governor cancel the emergency proclamation, though he called Inslee’s announcement overall “a good thing.”
“I think we could have sped up the pace” of reopening, said Wilcox. “And I’d still like to see the pace speed up.”
The pandemic continues
Despite the success on vaccines — 35% of state residents have been fully vaccinated — the pandemic continues. State health officials Thursday reported 1,505 new coronavirus cases and 12 new deaths, for a total of 5,626 fatalities.
As the vaccination work continues, Inslee announced new incentives to urge people to get shots.
State officials are working with the Association of Washington Business to help local chambers of commerce give gift cards to vaccinated people. Beginning Thursday night, vaccinated people at Seattle Mariners games will get prizes.
And state officials are working with wineries and breweries to see if a free drink could be given to people who have been vaccinated.
“And more ideas are in the works, as well, for our incentive programs,” said Inslee.
Some in Seattle were eager to see the state’s mask requirement adjusted and the governor announce plans for a full reopening.
“It’s really exciting and it’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Nicole Duran, 34, of West Seattle, who has been fully vaccinated for about a week. “A lot of freedom at once.”
The announcement represented a “chapter ending,” Duran said.
“It feels like we made it, which is how I felt after I got my COVID shot. It’s not over, but you lived through it,” Duran said. “Now we can move on to whatever normal is going to be.”
Duran said she keeps a pile of disposable masks at her door, so she never forgets to grab one on the way out.
“The chance to go out and have a drink with a friend, or go have dinner or go to the movies and go to the gym and not have a mask, that’s exciting. I’m looking forward.”
Duran said more than 80% of people in her neighborhood had received at least one dose of vaccine, according to local data.
“I would feel comfortable in my neighborhood going out without a mask, but I don’t know if I’m ready to rip it off right now. It will be something I ease into and judge on a situation-by-situation basis,” Duran said.
Pedro Leite, a 34-year-old software engineer living in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, said he was eager to ditch his masks. Last month, the CDC announced people could remove masks outdoors. Leite said he’s taken to it with glee.
“As soon as I am outdoors, I rip that off my face because I like the clean air in Washington state,” Leite said. “It’s awesome seeing people’s faces and expressions.”