The new coronavirus recovery plan announced Friday by Gov. Jay Inslee could soon allow a range of businesses in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties to reopen soon, including barbershops, hair salons and some restaurant dining.
Inslee’s new order will replace the existing emergency stay-at-home order, which is set to expire Monday. The new proclamation is likely to accelerate efforts to reopen parts of Washington under the governor’s four-phase recovery plan.
And the new directive adds something else: Workers in Washington will have to wear facial coverings at their jobs, unless they don’t have in-person interactions. That part of the provision will take effect June 8.
Washington’s largest counties, facing higher COVID-19 infection rates and having shouldered the initial brunt of the pandemic, have largely remained stuck in the first and most restrictive phase of Inslee’s plan. Friday’s order should change that.
Under new criteria issued by Inslee, officials for Snohomish and Pierce counties are planning to apply to the state for the second phase, which allows a host of businesses to reopen with restrictions to protect against the virus.
Meanwhile, King County will pursue another option made available by Inslee’s new directive: advancing partly toward the next reopening phase.
The county will apply to the state to reopen a handful of businesses such as hair salons, barbershops and some outdoor restaurant dining, County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday in a news conference after Inslee’s announcement.
The state would have to approve that step, and any opening dates right now remain unclear.
In a statement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said she believes the city is ready to take that step, but, “We aren’t out of the woods yet.”
Constantine said the public-health metrics surrounding the virus were not yet favorable enough for the county to move fully to the second phase.
Originally issued March 23 as the pandemic roared across the state and nation, the stay-at-home order clamped down on businesses and social activity to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
As of Friday, it has sickened 21,071 Washingtonians and claimed 1,111 lives.
But recent weeks have shown Washington can take further steps to resume the daily rhythms of life, Inslee said Friday. The governor cited data from the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling estimating that the transmission rate for the virus has dropped across Western Washington.
Inslee’s new plan lays out metrics that will help Washington’s large counties still in the first — and most restrictive — phase to reach the second phase.
“Under this new approach, counties will have more flexibility to demonstrate that they have the capability to stay on top of the virus,” Inslee said.
The new plan relaxes a key standard — the number of new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 in a county over a 14-day span. That metric has prevented Washington’s largest counties — like King, Pierce and Snohomish counties — from moving to the second phase.
State officials in recent weeks have allowed some larger counties to move to the second phase if they have fewer than 10 new confirmed cases per 100,000 over that time span. Now, counties with fewer than 25 new confirmed cases per 100,000 across 14 days can apply to move to the second phase, as long as they also meet other criteria.
Recent state numbers show Pierce, Skagit and Whatom counties qualifying for the second phase under that threshold, according to the state Department of Health (DOH).
Those numbers, which include two weeks up to May 23, show Snohomish County at 26 new cases and King County at 30 new cases per 100,000 residents over that timespan.
Snohomish County officials — who even before Inslee’s announcement said they would apply to the state to reopen more quickly — said Friday their numbers may soon be low enough to meet the new standard.
In a statement Friday, Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards praised Inslee’s announcement and said Pierce County was also preparing an application to move to the second phase.
“While the clouds of COVID-19 still hang overhead, there is evidence that brighter days lie ahead,” Woodards said in prepared remarks.
The second phase allows a host of business activities to resume. Barbershops, hairstylists, nail salons and tattoo artists, can start back up, with protective measures against the virus. Other personal and professional services can similarly go back to work. Restaurants can seat diners with limitations on capacity and table size, and some in-store retail purchases can be made.
Inslee’s new order will also allow other counties to ask DOH Secretary John Wiesman on June 1 for permission to move to the next phase. Wiesman has been making the final decisions for allowing counties to open up more quickly.
That means the 26 counties currently in Phase 2 could then apply to Phase 3, which further loosens restrictions on businesses and allows some nonessential travel. Counties must still stay in each phase for three weeks to measure for spikes in the virus.
Among other things, the third phase allows gatherings of up to 50 people, as well as the resumption of nonessential travel, and the reopening of museums, libraries and some indoor sports activities.
Republicans, and more recently, some Democrats, have chafed at the restrictions under the governor’s emergency order that has kept businesses closed and social activities curtailed.
GOP House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox of Yelm credited bipartisan support in Pierce and Snohomish counties for pushing Inslee to speed up the reopening.
“I’m glad that he’s doing it, I think it’s a little late in some cases,” Wilcox said Friday of Inslee’s order.
He and other Republican lawmakers Friday sent Inslee a letter calling for a special session so the Legislature could weigh in on the pandemic response.
“It is clear to us that executive mandates are no longer enough to address the devastation facing Washingtonians related to COVID-19,” they wrote, referring to both the loss of jobs and the large-scale fraud that hurt state efforts to provide economic assistance.
“We have concluded it is now the people’s turn to speak through their elected representatives, who must come together and govern only as the Legislature can,” the letter added.
Even before Inslee’s announcement, Snohomish County officials had planned to apply to move to the second phase anyway.
The decision to move forward was something Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers discussed on a call with the governor’s office, the cities of Everett and Seattle and King and Pierce counties on Tuesday.
The move to Phase 2 was solidified once the Snohomish County Council approved the use of $143 million from the CARES Act, allowing the county to fund the quarantine center at the Angel of the Winds Arena in downtown Everett through the end of the year, continue diagnostic testing, contact tracing and secure more protective equipment.
County officials are also betting on Snohomish County residents to do their part by limiting their contact with each other, practicing social distancing, wearing masks in public and practicing good hygiene.
“The success of moving into Phase 2 really depends on the good will of our citizens,” Somers said during a press briefing Friday morning. Somers said he has been in daily contact with Inslee’s office but hasn’t been given any assurance the move to the next phase will be approved.
The Snohomish Health Department had already been preparing a variance application because it wanted to be ready when the time came and because case rates have been trending in the right direction and there is enough capacity at area hospitals to handle COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s health officer.
Despite missing on the case rate criteria, Spitters said he is comfortable with the county’s situation, equating the decision to move forward to that of taking care of a patient where many factors are taken into account to determine treatment.
“Although we may not have a bright green light on every indicator we’re well positioned to do well going forward and suppress transmission and have a successful venture into Phase 2,” he said.