OLYMPIA — Physical distancing: Nixed. Occupancy limits at businesses: Gone. Mask requirements: Lifted for outdoor spaces and sporting events.

Washington’s next new normal is here.

Wednesday’s sunrise greeted a state no longer beholden to government-imposed restrictions on business and social life to stem the tide of the coronavirus.

As the clock rolled past midnight into early Wednesday, businesses — like restaurants, bars, fitness centers and retail stores — became free of 50% indoor occupancy limits. At the same time, 6-foot physical-distancing requirements lapsed.

Some restrictions will remain, such as on indoor events of 10,000 or more people. Unvaccinated people will still have to wear masks at indoor work places.

And masks will still be required for everyone — regardless of vaccination status — inside schools, healthcare facilities, child care centers and long-term care facilities, according to the state Department of Health. Federal mask requirements remain in place for public transit, like buses, light rail and planes.


The change arrives after 15 months of unprecedented restrictions imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee to stem a pandemic that killed more than 5,900 state residents and sickened more than 414,000 others. Now, nearly 70% of state residents 16 and older have gotten their first dose of a vaccine.

Advertising

“Washington has come a long way since the first confirmed case of COVID-19 in the country was found in our state January 2020, and that is in no small part due to Washingtonians’ dedication and resilience in protecting themselves and their communities throughout the pandemic,” said Inslee in a statement Tuesday afternoon.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I’m proud of how Washingtonians came together, persevered and sacrificed to fight this virus, and now we’re finally in a place that is safe enough to end this chapter,” he added later.

Inslee Wednesday and Thursday is set to take a mini-tour with stops in Tacoma, Spokane and Seattle to commemorate the closure of his “Healthy Washington” plan.

But this long-awaited seismic shift leads to a fresh round of uncertainty and questions.

The pandemic continues. New and more worrying variants of the coronavirus are spreading, including in Washington. Those pose risks to the nearly one-third of state residents ages 16 and older who haven’t yet gotten a first shot, despite widespread access to effective vaccines.

Meanwhile, businesses are struggling to entice employees back to work, and the cores of cities like Seattle remain emptier than usual as people work remotely. Basic infrastructure like public transportation and airports remain understaffed–although Puget Sound transit officials said Wednesday that buses, trains and ferries will reopen at full capacity July 1.

Advertising

And resistance by conservatives to Inslee’s health emergency order — which will remain in effect beyond Wednesday — persists.

For many months, Republicans have objected to Inslee’s broad emergency powers and his oversight of the restrictions, and months ago called for the state to open up. But Democrats in the Legislature blocked efforts to place time limits or other restrictions on the governor’s authority.

House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox said he remains troubled that Inslee is not declaring an official end to the public health emergency, meaning he could reimpose restrictions at any moment.

“The thing that really bothers me for the future of our state is that there is nothing that determines the end of an emergency,” said Wilcox, R-Yelm.

Uncertainty remains

Fully reopening the state economy will take more than lifting pandemic restrictions.

Although pent-up consumer demand is evident across the economy — Pike Place Market has been teeming on recent weekends, and some restaurants have had lines — many sectors still lack the capacity to take advantage of it all.

Advertising

Hundreds of small businesses closed permanently during the pandemic, and replacing them could take many months.

Conversely, many of the employers that did survive the pandemic have struggled to hire enough workers to fully reopen, despite offering higher wages and benefits such as hiring bonuses.

“We lost almost our entire workforce over the course of the year [and] we are still short 80,000 workers,” said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association during a news conference Tuesday.

That shortage could ease somewhat after July 4, when Washington again requires workers collecting jobless benefits to search for work. (The rule was suspended last year as a safety precaution). But some observers expect a tight labor market to linger, especially for retailers, restaurants, hotels, and other service jobs. 

“We were in a labor shortage situation in the Puget Sound region before the pandemic and the underlying causes of that haven’t gone away,” says Jacob Vigdor, an economist with the University of Washington Evans School of Public Policy and Governance.

After a steep economic downturn prompted by the initial outbreak and restrictions, Washington’s tax collections have picked up steam, evidence of a strengthening economy. State residents and businesses have also been helped by billions of dollars in virus aid through several recovery packages approved by Congress.

Sponsored

And, also in the meantime, employers can expect an increase in taxes to replenish the state’s unemployment trust fund. In 2021 and 2022, employers will pay around $1.3 billion and $1.8 billion, respectively, in taxes, compared to around $1.1 billion in 2019.

Another potential drag on the recovery: the unknown status of remote work.

Many employers have begun bringing workers back to the office, and that will likely accelerate with the official reopening. But some of the biggest companies, such as Amazon, will allow employees to continue to work remotely at least part of the time.

That prospect has made it hard for smaller businesses, such as restaurants, that depend on office workers to know when or even if to reopen.

That uncertainty has been especially challenging in downtown Seattle, which is still missing many of the roughly 350,000 workers it had before the pandemic. As of the week of June 13, the number of daytime workers downtown was around 20% of the level right before the pandemic struck last year, according to data presented by the Downtown Seattle Association.

Similarly, uncertainty over the recovery of tourism and of arts and culture businesses, all of which were devastated by the pandemic, could delay the reopening of downtowns and commercial centers.

Advertising

For example, hotel occupancy in downtown Seattle is projected to hit 61% in July — more than triple the rate of July 2020, but barely two-thirds of the level from July 2019, according to Visit Seattle, a trade group.

At Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, the number of daily departing passengers for the week of June 21 was 28% below the same week in 2019.

The silver lining of a delayed reopening? Some business leaders say much of the state’s economic infrastructure isn’t ready yet for a full return to normal. There was concern, for example, that many of the state’s public transit systems have been operating at reduced pandemic levels and would struggle to handle all the employees now working remotely.

However, on Wednesday, King County Metro announced that “buses, trains and ferries in the Puget Sound region are returning to full capacity and opening all seats starting in July.”

In the meantime, the challenge of rebuilding economic capacity to meet returning demand is one most businesses welcome after months of restrictions and dusty cash registers.

“Everybody expects there to be some growing pains,” says Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association. “But these are the type of pains … we want — where there’s pressure from customers wanting to come back and come through your doors and spend money.”

Advertising

State of emergency continues

One of the earliest states hit by the outbreak, Washington enacted some of the strictest virus measures in the nation, and kept them longer than almost everywhere else in the country.

With Oregon’s restrictions lifting Wednesday and New Mexico’s on Thursday, according to a New York Times database, only Hawaii will remain partially closed.

In an email, Inslee spokesperson Tara Lee wrote that “the state of emergency will continue until it is no longer needed.

“It is tied to a number of important things such as federal funding, the eviction moratorium bridge, facial covering requirements, FEMA support and more,” wrote Lee. “Also, we are also still in the pandemic and almost half of our total state population (many of them children) are not yet vaccinated and cannot be yet.”

Still required beyond Wednesday are facial coverings for unvaccinated people working in indoor spaces, to be overseen by the state Department of Labor & Industries.

Local businesses and governments will still be allowed to adopt more protective masking requirements, according to DOH.

Advertising

Another ongoing requirement governs large indoor gatherings — defined as over 10,000 people — to be capped at 75%, unless attendees’ vaccination status is verified.

A federal mask mandate remains in place through at least September for public transit systems, like buses and light rail, and on board airplanes. Passengers may remove their masks at bus stops, on ferry decks and other outdoor transportation areas.

Some officials voiced concerns about public compliance with continued requirements for masking in places such as hospitals, where masks are still required regardless of vaccination status.

“We’re hearing some people are really pushing back against wearing masks in health care settings, which is troubling given the vulnerability of some patients,” said Beth Zborowski, spokesperson for the Washington State Hospital Association.

Last month, the governor said that he would roll back the restrictions on June 30, or earlier if 70% of state residents ages 16 and older have started the vaccination process.

Washington has ranked generally high among the states in the number of people vaccinated. But that pace has slowed, despite a pair of lotteries intended to spur more people to get their shots.

Advertising

As of Tuesday, 68.8% of eligible state residents have gotten their first shot, according to DOH.

State health officials Tuesday reported 324 new coronavirus cases, for 451,248 total cases, and nine new fatalities, totaling 5,920 deaths.

While some coronavirus testing and vaccination sites have already closed, many others will remain operating for the foreseeable future, according to DOH.

In Snohomish County, new cases of the coronavirus have flattened the past couple of weeks and the county is experiencing about 300 positive tests during each of the past three weeks, said Dr. Chris Spitters, during the county’s weekly COVID-19 press briefing Tuesday.

“It’s really incumbent on all of us to keep our heads on,” said Spitters, health officer for the Snohomish Health District. “Be safe and careful, especially unvaccinated folks in public indoor spaces need to continue wearing masks, and try to stay spread out from others and, more importantly, go get vaccinated.”

This story has been updated to reflect King County Metro’s announcement on Wednesday that buses, trains, and ferries in Puget Sound Region are returning to full capacity in July.

Seattle Times staff reporters Tan Vinh, Jim Brunner, Ryan Blethen and Michelle Baruchman also contributed to this story.