This story was last updated at 4:50 p.m.
Gov. Jay Inslee has announced mandatory social distancing measures for three Washington counties in response to the outbreak of the novel coronavirus. In a news conference Wednesday morning, Inslee said he’s prohibiting events and gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
The order applies to gatherings for social, spiritual and recreational activities, including but not limited to: community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based or sporting events; parades; concerts; festivals; conventions; fundraisers and similar activities.
“We hope the things we're doing here can help set a template for the rest of the country,” Inslee told reporters.
Inslee noted during the briefing that without instituting these requirements, COVID-19 — the respiratory illness caused by the new strain of coronavirus — could spread rapidly in the coming months.
“This is an unprecedented public health situation and we can’t wait until we’re in the middle of it to slow it down,” Inslee said in a statement released Wednesday. “We’ve got to get ahead of the curve. One main defense is to reduce the interaction of people in our lives.”
Dr. Jeff Duchin, King County’s public health officer, also announced an additional emergency order on Wednesday, in which the county will take extra precautions to limit smaller, non-essential events. He also stressed that the highest risk individuals should avoid visiting health care facilities unless “absolutely essential.”
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers says his county will issue similar guidance.
"It's important so that our residents are getting consistent information from us and consistent action," Somers said.
Neither the the King County order nor the state's puts restrictions on retailers or other businesses. Those organizations are being asked to take steps to minimize the spread of disease.
State law says any person who violates a provision of an emergency order issued by the governor is guilty of a gross misdemeanor. During the new conference Wednesday, Inslee said the events in question that are subject to the mandate extend to personal gatherings, such as weddings with more than 250 guests.
Leaders across those counties and the governor urged school districts to begin planning for potential widespread closures—in the event that this outbreak continues to spread for the weeks, or even months, ahead.
At this point, Inslee is not ordering schools in the affected areas to close, but he said he’s asked school district leaders to “immediately begin contingency planning for potential school closures in the next several days.”
Seattle Public Schools will close all of its schools starting Thursday for at least two weeks.
Superintendent Denise Juneau released a statement Wednesday announcing the closure, which begins Thursday.
“The emphasis is to take the strongest possible measures to disrupt the possibility of widespread infection from coronavirus,” the statement reads. “Because of the size of virtually every SPS school’s student population, SPS cannot meet (the limits imposed by the governor) and continue to effectively operate.”
Inslee said the aim is for school districts to figure out how they can help continue to provide food for kids in the event that schools have to close, and to try to provide child care for parents.
“This is very important as we think about this, because we don’t want to have nurses have to leave their employment at a hospital in the middle of an epidemic because they don’t have child care resolved,” Inslee said.
Teachers in local schools report that attendance has been declining as parents choose to keep their students home. Additionally, some teachers and other school staff who fall into high-risk categories, such as being over age 60, have chosen to stay home. The Northshore School District, which has more than 22,000 students and is located northeast of Seattle, closed schools last week and moved to online instruction.
Inslee said the state’s homeless population was a particular concern, and officials were “continuing to develop” systems that would allow homeless people to isolate themselves if they show symptoms of COVID-19.
Government and nonprofit officials say homeless people are at increased risk from the virus because they often live in crowded places like shelters, have underlying health conditions, and can’t isolate themselves by retreating to a home.
King County has purchased a motel where people can recover from the disease in isolation if they have nowhere else to go. The county also plans to use modular units for that purpose.
Seattle officials have also announced plans to move about 100 people out of encampments and into tiny house villages and also relocate some of the Downtown Emergency Service Center shelter population to the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall. Officials described these as preventative measures to move people out of environments where the virus may spread more easily.
Officials acknowledged the widespread disruption this mandate, and any others that may follow, will cause. But stressed it’s vital to save lives.
"We don't take these decisions lightly,” Duchin said. “But we're facing an unprecedented health emergency."
During Wednesday's briefing, Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier stressed the need for people to continue to support emergency food networks and other safety-net services for vulnerable populations. He said “now more than ever” that support will be needed.
ORGANIZATIONS QUICKLY SHUTTER EVENTS
Sports teams also are working to comply with the order. The Sounders match against FC Dallas scheduled for March 21 at CenturyLink Field has been postponed. The club said it would give rescheduling details at a later date.
On March 7, the Sounders played at home to a crowd of more than 30,000 fans. Social distancing measures were being encouraged at that point, but Inslee and other officials had resisted taking a harder line.
The Seattle Dragons XFL game scheduled for Sunday will be played without fans. The game will be broadcast live on ESPN2.
Single game ticket holders will be issued refunds. Season ticket members will be offered refunds or credit toward a Dragons game during the 2021 season.
The Baseball Office of the Commissioner released a statement following the governor’s announcement, stating that anyone who has purchased tickets for upcoming scheduled games at T-Mobile Park will receive credits.
“While we hope to be back to playing baseball in Seattle as soon as possible, the health and safety of our community is the most important consideration,” the statement reads. “We will provide more information about our plans for the games as it becomes available.”
The credit — which applies to season-ticketholders, Suite Holders and Group Buyers — will be applied by March 19 and may be used to purchase tickets for any other 2020 regular season home game. Single-game ticketholders will automatically be refunded.
Many staple arts and culture institutions in Seattle are effectively shutting down for the month due to the new restrictions, including Benaroya Hall, Pacific Northwest Ballet and Seattle Symphony.
"We are a fragile ecosystem at best," said Bernie Griffin, managing director at the 5th Avenue Theatre.
The theater will not be able to show its upcoming performances of "Sister Act," which Griffin anticipated would be one of their most popular and as a result they're losing $1 million in revenue.
"To have something like this that is unprecedented could be potentially devestating for the sector," Griffin said.
Arts and culture institutions say ticket holders for cancelled events can help nonprofits by not asking for a refund and instead donating their ticket costs to the venue. Some relief for artists who have already been impacted by cancelled events is being organized through fundraising campaigns.
So far, Sound Transit is operating uninterrupted.
Spokesman Scott Thompson says the regional transit agency is experiencing a 10-20 percent drop in ridership system-wide, as a result of widespread social distancing and Seattle-based employers encouraging thousands of employees to work remotely.
Because of the significant drop in ridership, Thompson says service — at least for now — remains unaffected by the governor’s social-distancing mandate. He noted that individual cars on the Sounder train transport fewer than 250 people at a time. And given the decrease in ridership across trains and buses, he added, vehicles are operating well below capacity.
Still, agency officials are discussing contingency plans to prepare for the possibility of future disruptions.
Thompson stressed that many people who lack other modes of transportation rely on Sound Transit to get around, even in the midst of this public health emergency.
Sound Transit continues to clean trains and buses more frequently, and with cleaning solutions recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, he said.
Sea-Tac Airport is operating normally for now, enacting deep cleaning protocols to try and keep passengers and employees safe.
"We've not had a single incident or case identified at Sea-Tac Airport where we have thousands and thousands of passengers, thousands of employees working, so fingers crossed there," said Peter Steinbrueck, president of the Port of Seattle Commission.
But the Port did announce that the first two cruise sailings of the season have been cancelled.
The first is the Grand Princess, where passengers were stranded after several tested positive for the new coronavirus. It was slated to come to Seattle on April 1. The Port has also cancelled the April 5 sailing of the Celebrity Eclipse.
Port officials say it's not yet clear if they will have to cancel the rest of the season. That would be especially costly for ships that normally homeport in Seattle, the first of which is scheduled for April 15.
Each sailing is worth about $4 million in economic benefit to the region, but homeported vessels provide even more as workers and passengers spend money in the area. The cruise industry here is worth about $900 million per year.
HOW TRIBES FIT IN
Inslee acknowledged during the press conference that his directive does not apply directly to tribal casinos.
“There are some treaty issues on particular tribal things. We’re having further discussions with the tribes on it,” Inslee said.
The governor held a conference call Wednesday with tribal leaders to hear reports of the measures they’re taking and to discuss the directive and their needs, said Suqamish Chairman Leonard Forsman.
Forsman, who is also president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Washington and Vice President of the Washington Indian Gaming Association, confirmed to KNKX that tribal businesses such as the Suquamish's Clearwater Casino Resort remain open.
“They’ve been doing a lot of deep cleaning and educating customers and all,” he said.
Casinos are critical employers and revenue generators for tribal governments, funding everything from natural resource protection to tribal police and courts. Forsman noted the Suquamish are in a county – Kitsap – with a low number of coronavirus cases, just two as of Wednesday, according to the state Health Department.
Forsman says the ban on large gatherings doesn’t apply to the tribes because the state doesn’t have jurisdiction over them. But he says tribes have been taking action, in a lot of similar ways.
“We have the same goals as everyone else,” he said. “We’re taking it very seriously and will work in consort with our own health and governmental agencies here to reduce any contribution to the spread of the disease. We’re just taking it day by day.”
For example, the Suquamish Tribe is scheduled to hold its annual general council meeting this weekend, which is normally a two-day gathering. They have reduced it to one day and will only conduct elections and essential business as required by their constitution. Forsman says his tribe also declared a public emergency on March 9.
“So we’ve had a lot of events that have already cancelled on their own, and then other events that we’ve cancelled – tribal events, including some travel and elders gathering and things like that,” Forsman said. “We’re taking all of those same precautions.”
Other tribes, such as the Puyallup, started cancelling big events last week.
KNKX’s Ashley Gross, Will James, Rebekah Way, Paula Wissel, Bellamy Pailthorp and Kevin Kniestedt contributed to this report. This is a developing story. Check back for updates.