Inslee: More counties can expedite reopening process
OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Ten additional counties in Washington can apply to move to the second stage of the state's economic reopening plan, based on new guidelines announced Tuesday by Gov. Jay Inslee that allows larger counties with fewer new coronavirus cases to open some of their businesses sooner.
Previously, of the state's 39 counties, only those with a population of less than 75,000 and no new cases of COVID-19 in the last three weeks, among other stipulations, could apply for a quicker reopening.
The counties identified Tuesday — Spokane, Adams, Mason, Thurston, Lewis, Clark, Clallam, Kitsap, Island and San Juan — are those with fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period. Their application to the state must include a local public health officer's recommendation, a letter from hospitals confirming bed capacity, and a county commission vote. The counties also have to submit testing data and information on resources available for contact tracing investigations.
"This criteria for the next phase of our recovery plan is consistent with the CDC guidelines for opening regions nationwide," Inslee said. He said that the move will allow more economic opportunities for those counties, "while still providing the protections we need for the health of our citizens."
If all 10 counties are approved by the Department of Health, they will join 10 other counties that have already been approved to reopen more quickly. That leaves 19 counties — including King, the state's largest county, which includes Seattle — that are still in the first phase of the four-stage reopening plan announced earlier this month. Inslee has said he is hopeful that the other counties can open by June 1, but has said it will depend on what the data for those counties show at that time.
More than 18,600 people in Washington state have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 1,002 have died. The virus causes mild to moderate symptoms in most patients, and the vast majority recover. But it is highly contagious and can cause severe illness and death in some patients, particularly the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.
Inslee said that while the state has seen progress — including a recent reduction in daily deaths reported — he said "we're so far from being out of the woods," noting that there are still 150-200 new cases confirmed a day in the state.
"This has not passed," he said. "We have flattened the curve, but it continues to haunt us."
Washington's stay-at-home order — in place since March 23 — has been extended through at least May 31, and more than 1 million people in the state have filed for unemployment benefits since businesses started closing in March due to COVID-19.
Inslee has already eased some restrictions across the state, allowing the resumption of existing construction, fishing and golf, and the reopening of most state parks, as well as curbside pickup for retail sales.
The second phase of the state's reopening plan allows camping, and new construction, as well as in-store retail purchases, with restrictions. Barber shops and salons could also reopen at that time, and restaurants could reopen at half capacity and table sizes limited to five.
The third phase would expand group gatherings to 50 or less, including sports activities, and would allow restaurants to increase capacity to 75 percent. Gyms and movie theaters could reopen at half capacity, but nightclubs and entertainment venues will still remain closed during this phase.
During the last phase, most public interactions would resume, with social distancing remaining in place for high-risk populations, with bars, restaurants and entertainment and sporting venues returning to their maximum capacity. Inslee has said the public should expect a minimum of three weeks between phases.