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‘Hours count.’ Gov. Inslee orders businesses to close to limit spread of novel coronavirus

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee addresses a news conference about the coronavirus outbreak Monday, March 16, 2020, in Seattle. Inslee ordered all bars, restaurants, entertainment and recreation facilities to temporarily close to fight the spread of COVID-19.
Elaine Thompson
The Associated Press
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee addresses a news conference about the coronavirus outbreak Monday, March 16, 2020, in Seattle. Inslee ordered all bars, restaurants, entertainment and recreation facilities to temporarily close to fight the spread of COVID-19.

Gov. Jay Inslee made it official Monday: any businesses that aren’t essential retailers, such as grocery stores or pharmacies, are shutting down for at least two weeks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.

That means everything from restaurants and bars to nail salons and bowling alleys will cease operations starting at midnight. Pick-up or delivery services are still allowed.

The closures are slated to last until March 31, but Inslee acknowledged that could change depending on how the weeks ahead unfold.

“All of us have to recognize for the next several weeks — normal is not in our game plan,” Inslee said during a live-stream news conference, during which most reporters called in to practice social distancing.

Officials in King County, where the outbreak has hit hardest, issued a similar order in the same breath — stressing in no uncertain terms that individual actions now are vital in the collective effort to save lives and prevent overwhelming the health care system.

“We expect the cases to continue to double every five to seven days unless we take significant action to reduce community spread,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, the county’s chief health officer.

The cooperative order is the latest extraordinary step to limit social interaction in hopes of slowing the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new strain of coronavirus. Previous measures included statewide school closures and prohibition of large gatherings.

“Hours count,” Inslee said. “This is the only weapon available to us right now.”

Inslee first announced the business closures late Sunday. In a statement, he said the emergency order applies to restaurants, bars, and entertainment and recreational facilities. Grocery stores and pharmacies are exempt, though other retail outlets will have reduced occupancy.

The restrictions in Washington state follow similar orders affecting the states of California, Illinois, and Ohio, and New York City.

Inslee also expanded the restrictions on public gatherings — now, any events with 50 or more participants are prohibited. That aligns with the new guidelines released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Sunday. President Donald Trump took that a step further Monday, advising people nationwide to avoid congregating in groups larger than 10.

Regional officials didn’t mince words during the news conference in Washington state Monday, as they came together in a collective voice to stress the importance of individual cooperation.

“If you see someone doing something stupid, say something,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said.

The severity of the tone of these press briefings have intensified day by day, as officials brace for weeks or even months of effects from the coronavirus outbreak.

“Never since World War II have we faced a situation like this,” Inslee said. “This is bigger than all of us.”

Monday afternoon, Inslee said health officials were scheduled to talk with leaders at local hospitals to discuss delays of non-essential medical procedures. And the governor is urging the federal government to make regulatory adjustments so personal protective equipment stockpiles are accessible as Washington’s health care system prepares for a surge in patients.

Inslee reiterated his plea for high-risk groups, particularly residents older than 60, to stay home at all costs. He noted that the COVID-19 mortality rate “skyrockets” — between 8 and 14 percent — for people over 80.

“There is going to be a day when we can be close to our grandparents again,” Inslee said. “We have the ability to fulfill that destiny.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine noted that people can still get outside and practice responsible social distancing. “Walks are OK. Runs are OK,” he said. “But it’s critical to check in on others. Make sure they know someone cares.”

He said now is the time for “people to assume that they and everyone they meet is infected” with the virus.

The widespread closures of local businesses will have sweeping effects, especially on smaller companies and hourly workers. Inslee said officials are “intensely interested” in looking for ways to support displaced employees. He referred to strict enforcement of Washington’s new paid family leave law, which allows up to 12 weeks of paid time off to care for family members. And he’s looking to the federal government to clear a wider path for unemployment benefits, to extend support to part-time employees, for example.

“Any possible way to expand unemployment compensation ought to be something we look at,” Inslee said.

The state also is exploring debt relief options, for workers who may be unable to pay their mortgages during this economic disruption. Inslee said more information about that could be released in the coming days.

And officials say protecting the unsheltered population is among the top priorities of the coronavirus response. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the focus has been getting people inside as quickly as possible, giving them enough space when they are moved inside, and opening up quarantine sites and isolation units.

“It’s the humane thing to do and the right thing to do,” Durkan said, stressing that an outbreak among the homeless population could overwhelm local hospitals.

Patty Hayes, director of Public Health — Seattle & King County, said the new sites that have been identified for quarantine and isolation — at Boeing Field and in Issaquah — must be appropriately staffed. Doing so could require help from nonprofits or the National Guard.

Inslee stressed that the National Guard can’t, however, protect the public from their own misguided decisions should they choose to ignore the guidance of public health officials. Every day, he said, he thinks of someone who is safer because of his changes in behavior. Monday, that person was a 100-year-old former coach.

“I’m here protecting my old basketball coach,” Inslee said. “I hope everyone is thinking who they are going to protect.”

This story has been updated to include more details, including remarks from Monday’s news conference.

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Kari Plog is a former KNKX reporter who covered the people and systems in Pierce, Thurston and Kitsap counties, with an emphasis on police accountability.