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LISTEN: Washington's path to reopening and COVID-19 behind bars

Visitors at Seattle's Gas Works Park practice social distancing, Friday April 9, 2020.
Parker Miles Blohm
Visitors at Seattle's Gas Works Park practice social distancing, Friday April 9, 2020.

Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement opening public lands to some recreation on May 5 shows that Washington state is taking steps to slowly reopen amid the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There are a lot of factors that go into rolling back each restriction. Olympia correspondent Austin Jenkins discussed these moving parts with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick. 

Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for clarity.

KIRSTEN KENDRICK, host: Austin, so far, the governor has eased restrictions on construction and now on outdoor recreation. How are state leaders making these decisions? 

AUSTIN JENKINS, reporter: Well, Kirsten, in the case of restarting existing construction projects, the governor had a work group made up of industry folks, unions, state agencies, local governments. And they've been meeting twice a week and negotiating on this for weeks, so this was going on for quite a while. In the end, they came up with a 30-point safety plan. It is still a fairly limited reopening. I will say there was a lot of pressure put on him by this industry, and it took longer than many in that industry and many Republicans would have liked.

I expect that we will see similar work groups come together for other industry sectors to work on plans for reopening. It seems like that's sort of Inslee's preferred model. And of course, a lot of the reopening of the economy is going to depend on the trend lines in terms of what the virus is doing, access to testing, access to contact tracing. 

KENDRICK: And with all these moving parts, what can you tell us about what we might expect between now and May 4, when the governor's stay-home order is set to expire? 

JENKINS: Yeah, that's right around the corner, next Monday. So that is a big question for this week. We know that the governor has already signaled that he's prepared to start to allow elective surgeries to start to happen again. So that announcement, I would expect, is likely coming soon. But he's facing a critical moment now with the expiration date of his current stay-home order.

We're watching other states, and not just red states, but states like Colorado, for instance, have started to reopen. Colorado is now part of this multi-state Western States Pact that also includes California and Oregon. Nevada joined as well yesterday.

Inslee is taking a more conservative approach, it seems. He's been signaling in recent days that it's likely too soon to start to reopen here, that many of the current restrictions that are in place today are likely to extend past May 4. And really, it seems like he's got three options on the table. One is he can just let this thing expire, and there's no evidence he's planning to do that. He could extend it again, kind of as is, perhaps for another month. Or maybe he can go in and modify it somehow. But again, I think he's been pretty clear in signaling that this isn't going away anytime soon. 

KENDRICK: That's right. We've heard a lot of cautionary language from the governor. I wanted to switch to another issue you've been following: how the pandemic is affecting jails and prisons. Earlier this hour, we heard from NPR about how infections in these settings are likely more prevalent than the numbers show. What's the status of COVID-19 in Washington's facilities? 

JENKINS: Well, you're right. Just like in the general population, testing is not prevalent in Washington prisons and jails. They have the same issues with supplies and whatnot. So we know that there are approximately 28 Washington state corrections staff that have tested positive, the 14 (incarcerated) individuals at the Monroe facility. That's the latest count from Department of Corrections. And you know, there's this process of early release going on in the prison system.

Jails are a very different picture. Remember that most people in jails have not been convicted. They're in pretrial detention or status. And jails in this state, as we've reported recently, have emptied out, really. I mean, more than half the population has gone either because they're slowing new admissions or letting people out through a variety of mechanisms. And so it's been really dramatic what's happened in jails around the state in recent weeks. You know, we had overcrowded jails, and today we don't. 

KENDRICK: Well, as we talk about reopening, Austin, we're also hearing more about what life looks like on the other side of this pandemic. What do those conversations sound like in the criminal justice system, given that prison overcrowding has long been an issue here? 

JENKINS: Yeah, we have crowded prisons. We've had crowded jails. And it was really interesting in reporting on jails over the last week and — whether it's a jail director or an inmate advocate or a health care advocate — everybody was saying, even prosecutors, that this is an opportunity to learn better ways, to look at alternatives to pretrial confinement, and that it would be really squandering the moment to just let the jails fill back up again right after this is over and get crowded again. In fact, there's talk about creating a statewide taskforce to focus on this. 

That said, I also talked to jail directors. One said he feels like this is that moment before the tsunami where all the water sucks out and then the tsunami arrives. So I think that they're preparing for the jails to fill back up again. But there seems to be an interest in trying to have a discussion that might prevent that from happening. 

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A Seattle native and former KNKX intern, Simone Alicea spent four years as a producer and reporter at KNKX. She earned her Bachelor's of Journalism from Northwestern University and covered breaking news for the Chicago Sun-Times. During her undergraduate career, she spent time in Cape Town, South Africa, covering metro news for the Cape Times.