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Gov. Inslee unveils plan for getting Washington back to normal, but timeline still uncertain

An artist paints murals outside the shuttered Sonic Boom Records in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle on April 9, 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm
An artist paints murals outside the shuttered Sonic Boom Records in the Ballard neighborhood of Seattle on April 9, 2020.

Gov. Jay Inslee has unveiled what it’s going to take for Washington state to return to normal again. And while the plan is thorough, it still doesn’t specify how soon the transition could begin in the face of this unpredictable pandemic.  

In a brief address Tuesday night, Inslee introduced a roadmap for how leaders will respond to the public health crisis moving forward. He stressed that decisions will continue to be made based on science and data. The recovery efforts will be gradual and measured, according to a plan released by his office, with an eye toward equity — placing special attention on marginalized communities who are disproportionately affected by the virus.

"We need to reckon with the realities that disparities in our communities mean not every family can recover as quickly as others," Inslee said during his address. "Disparities in access to health care, to the internet, to affordable child care, to social services, to employment opportunities and more have already been exposed in ways not seen in modern times."

Inslee stressed, as he has in past briefings, that the state’s path to normal will require a confluence of many factors: more testing, the ability to perform thorough contact tracing, sufficient personal protective equipment for front-line workers, adequate hospital capacity and — perhaps most importantly — a vaccine.

Until all of those pieces fall into place, Inslee said, remote life and physical distancing will continue. When that happens, businesses should prepare for any restrictions to be eased “slowly and deliberately,” according to the plan released by the governor’s office. Certain industries and venues likely will be allowed to reopen before others, the plan notes.

And if Washington experiences another surge of COVID-19 cases, any loosened restrictions could be reinstated.

Unlike other states, Inslee hasn’t formally announced plans to extend Washington’s stay-at-home order beyond May 4. Still, his remarks Tuesday indicate an extension on most, if not all, restrictions is forthcoming.

"It will look more like the turning of the dial than the flip of a switch," Inslee said. "We’re going to take steps and then monitor to see whether they work or if we must continue to adapt. We will not be able to lift many of the restrictions by May 4." 

Inslee hinted that some restrictions could possibly be lifted in the coming weeks, including the ban on elective surgeries and some construction projects. But data in the coming days will determine if those restrictions will be eased.

Inslee stressed — as he has for weeks since the pandemic started — that “a variety of barriers,” including a lack of testing supplies, has hindered the state’s ability to move closer to reopening the economy. He said he sent another letter to Vice President Mike Pence, the head of the federal government’s coronavirus task force, urging the federal government’s help with supplying test kits.

“We need to be processing between 20,000 and 30,000 tests a day for our contact-tracing plan to work,” Inslee said. The state is lagging behind that target by the thousands. 

The plan released by Inslee's office also outlined his intent to appoint leaders from all levels of government to three key groups, which will advise his office in the weeks and months ahead. The groups will focus on public health and the health care system, economic recovery and the safe return to work, and social supports for the state’s most vulnerable people.

It’s been nearly eight weeks since the nation’s first novel coronavirus death was reported in Washington state. And it’s been more than four weeks since Inslee shuttered non-essential businesses and ordered Washington residents to stay home.

Health experts say Washington has made significant progress in flattening the curve. Modeling from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington, a leading source of information about the pandemic response, shows Washington state continues to have adequate hospital capacity to care for new COVID-19 patients. But lifting too many restrictions too fast would reverse that progress.

"The data tell us that if we were to lift all restrictions right now — or even two weeks from now — this decline will almost certainly stop and the spread of COVID-19 will go up," Inslee stressed Tuesday. 

The response to this pandemic continues to be a marathon, not a sprint. And Inslee reiterated Tuesday that our actions now will determine how fast we can ease up on these unprecedented restrictions.

“Our performance as a state has been exemplary to date, and we should have the confidence to act decisively in the days to come,” Inslee said. “We’re looking forward to making advances against this virus. And we know that only science, and data, and informed reasoning, and confidence in ourselves is going to lift us out of this crisis.”

News Coronavirus Coverage
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.