Seeking nearly every measure at their disposal to contain the rapid growth of the novel coronavirus, Washington leaders Monday called on state residents to avoid any unnecessary interactions over the next two weeks.
The recommendations from Gov. Jay Inslee, King County Executive Dow Constantine and others came as Washington continued to take steps to effectively shut down public interaction to slow the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Officials also warned of more disruption in the days ahead, as businesses close, people hunker down and hospitals prepare for a surge of coronavirus cases that could limit some nonemergency health procedures.
Above all, however, Inslee, Constantine and others stressed the power that individuals have through social distancing and other precautions to help curb what could become the most severe pandemic in a century.
“It is time right now for people to assume that they and everyone they meet has been exposed and is potentially infected,” said Constantine at a livestreamed news conference Monday, during which reporters listened in on conference lines to avoid any physical interaction.
As of Monday afternoon, Washington had 904 confirmed cases of the virus, more than twice as many as when Inslee first banned gatherings of 250 or more people, just five days earlier. There have been 48 deaths in Washington from the virus, according to the state Department of Health.
Late Sunday, Inslee announced that he would use emergency powers to begin shutting down bars, restaurants, clubs and gyms statewide and banning all gatherings of more than 50 people.
Constantine also acted simultaneously to ban smaller gatherings in King County — including those with fewer than 50 people — unless organizers meet specific criteria for hygiene and social distancing.
The statewide measures are set to take effect at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday morning, according to the Governor’s Office. In King County, the shutdowns were taking effect on Monday.
Restaurants may remain open for takeout and delivery services. The closures will last at least through the end of March, officials said.
On Monday, Canlis, Seattle’s premier fine dining institution, kicked off its drive-thru service with a first-day menu that included a burger and fries ($12), veggie melt and fries ($14), Canlis salad ($12), ice cream sandwich ($5) and a citrus soda ($4).
Even with five drive-thru lanes, cars were lined up down Halladay Street and around Sixth Avenue North by 11:05 a.m.
The Canlis team was ready for a crowd and had prepped 1,000 burgers. Within a half-hour, the parking lot had been reconfigured to add three more drive-thru lanes; the staff of 60 was taking orders and running food.
Other restaurants also shifted gears to offer only take-out meals.
“This is bigger than all of us,” Inslee said Monday, comparing the situation to World War II. “All of us have to recognize for the next several weeks, normal is not in our game plan.”
The ban, Inslee said, applies to not only restaurants and bars, but also coffee shops, food courts, barber shops, hair salons, youth sports, tattoo parlors, gyms, nontribal card dealers, breweries and distillers, theaters and bowling alleys. Grocery stores, pharmacies, banks, state parks and hardware stores will remain open.
Tribal casinos are not subject to the ban, since Native American tribes have authority over those facilities.
However, the Suquamish, Puyallup, and Tulalip tribes on Monday announced they would close their casinos for two weeks. More casino closures are expected around Western Washington.
Inslee asked all employers to plan how, if at all possible, they can avoid having any meetings of any size.
And the governor urged, in the strongest possible terms, people to stay home and avoid social interactions.
People over 60, who are most at risk from the virus, “need to self-isolate starting right now,” Inslee said, saying it could save dozens or hundreds of lives.
Meeting with friends, wrestling with grandchildren, going to a museum — “You just can’t do that anymore,” Inslee told the state’s senior citizens. “This is not a legal statement from the governor, but it is as strong a recommendation as I can possibly make.”
Ignoring the orders is a crime, Inslee said, but the state would only be taking enforcement actions if it sees willful, conscientious disregard of the order.
State law gives the governor broad authority to take emergency actions, and he said Monday that he believed the vast majority of Washingtonians would heed the new measures.
But, “If there is a willful, conscious disregard of this, the state does have abilities to take legal action … to get injunctions against people,” said Inslee. “And it is a crime to disobey this order.”
The new requirements are the latest in a rapidly cascading series of actions the state has taken as it tries to slow the growth of the novel coronavirus. The state has been escalating restrictions on a near-daily basis, as the count of confirmed infections have risen. Last Wednesday, Inslee banned gatherings larger than 250 people in Western Washington. On Thursday he shut down schools in Western Washington. On Friday he banned large gatherings, and shut down schools, statewide.
“If we don’t take decisive action, the number of people who require medical attention, ultimately, could exceed the capacity of the health care system,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health – Seattle & King County. “We need to impress on everyone the urgency of this situation and the importance of taking both governmental and individual actions.”
The outbreak, Duchin said, is likely to go on for months and it would be several weeks, at least, before they can evaluate the effectiveness of the physical distancing restrictions.
The governor also called on Congress to ease requirements on unemployment insurance to allow more people to collect the emergency aid.
Inslee said he and other governors held a phone call Monday with the White House. Based on that call, the governor said he believes that federal officials will soon prioritize the transfer from national stockpiles of personal protective equipment for medical workers to Washington state.
The federal government has been responding to the state’s requests so far, but more will be needed to prepare medical workers in the coming days.
Preparing the hospital system for a surge in COVID-19 cases is a key priority for state officials right now.
Health officials are making “very aggressive” efforts to prepare Washington’s hospitals for a surge in patients, Inslee said. Those plans might limit procedures for people who don’t urgently need them.
“If you have really nonnecessary surgery that could be delayed without a risk to your health, you probably are not going to be having those procedures for some period of time,” Inslee said.
Meanwhile, researchers in Seattle gave the first shots in a first test of an experimental coronavirus vaccine Monday, according to The Associated Press. Working with four healthy volunteers, scientists at the Kaiser Permanente Washington Research Institute in Seattle began an anxiously awaited first-stage study of a potential COVID-19 vaccine developed in record time after the new virus exploded out of China and fanned out across the globe.
In addition, a health officer announced the state now has a roster of more than 100 emergency volunteer health care workers who can be deployed if hospitals and clinics run short on staff due to the surge in coronavirus cases. Inslee’s declaration of the coronavirus pandemic as a state emergency allows the Health Department to ease certain health care licensing requirements, allowing doctors, nurses and other practitioners to work in Washington without an active state license.
The allowance applies to health care practitioners now licensed in other states, or those who have inactive Washington licenses.
So far, the ban on large gatherings in Washington has drawn no objections from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“We’re not objecting to any of this stuff happening locally, either county or statewide,” said Nancy Talner, a senior staff attorney for the ACLU of Washington. “I think they’ve made the case that it’s rooted in science and public health.”
The local ACLU has in the past filed lawsuits over government limits on large crowds — such as Seattle’s “no-protest” zone imposed during the 1999 WTO ministerial conference.
Governors everywhere are taking similar steps, as the number of confirmed cases continues to grow and has spread to every corner of the country. The governors of Ohio, Illinois, Massachusetts and New York, among others, have also shuttered restaurants and at least 32 states have closed schools.
The bans come as people around America try to digest the rapid developments surrounding the coronavirus — and the potential for steep impacts on workers and business.
On Monday, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan announced that the city will provide $800 in vouchers to more than 6,000 families to help them buy cleaning supplies, food and other household items at Safeway supermarkets during the pandemic.
The city will spend $5 million on the vouchers, to be distributed through the mail to 6,250 families already enrolled in city-subsidized child care and food-assistance programs, according to a Durkan news release.
As some grocery stores have seen their goods dwindle, Inslee advised people not to go overboard with their purchases. Grocery supply chains are strong, he said, but, “We don’t want to stress the supply chain unnecessarily.”
“So when you purchase things, this is a moment to think of your neighbors, not just your immediate family,” Inslee said. “So we can keep this supply chain open.”
Seattle Times staff reporter Lewis Kamb and Jackie Varriano contributed to this story, which includes information from The Associated Press.
Seattle Times staffers Jim Brunner, Daniel Beekman and Lynda Mapes contributed to this report.