Pierce County is preparing to reopen its economy, after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a more flexible strategy for easing social-distancing restrictions in counties across Washington.
Friday’s announcement came just as the governor’s original stay-home order was set to expire Monday.
In an exclusive interview with KNKX Public Radio, County Executive Bruce Dammeier said officials plan to move swiftly on an application to begin reopening the economy under the new criteria of Inslee’s so-called Safe Start plan.
“The days matter at this point,” Dammeier said. “We have people in Pierce County, small businesses and families, who are holding on by their fingernails.”
Dammeier said those businesses are committed to opening responsibly, and the county is supporting them with protective equipment and a thorough contact-tracing plan, to quickly identify and isolate new infections.
“I’ve said all along, the people of Pierce County are ready to responsibly and safely move to Phase 2. Those are both important,” he said, stressing that business owners “have skin in the game” when it comes to keeping their customers safe. “Everybody wants this to go well. We’ve got the expertise ready to support them.”
Dr. Anthony Chen, director of health for the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department, told KNKX earlier Friday that if the governor changed the criteria and Pierce County were eligible, his department would be ready to “push the go button” on a Phase 2 application. He said he has confidence in the governor and secretary of health to use evidence-based criteria that’s safe and fair.
Friday’s move by the county clears up some confusion that unfolded late Thursday, when Pierce County abruptly announced its intent to convene emergency meetings to approve the application in question — despite older criteria that deemed the county ineligible.
But now that criteria has changed. Inslee’s new plan allows more flexibility for counties like Pierce. Under the new rules, any county in Washington state may apply with the state secretary of health for variance, starting Monday. The application must be submitted by the county executive, and approved by the county council or commission. The plan doesn’t explicitly require approval from an independent board of health, such as the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department.
The secretary of health will evaluate applications from counties using updated public health metrics, that are applied as “targets,” not “hard line measures,” according to a document released by the governor’s office.
Pierce County now meets the new threshold for average daily case counts: an average of 25 cases per 100,000 residents in a 14-day period. Pierce County’s average daily case count was the only thing standing between Phase 1 and Phase 2, Chen said Friday. The updated rules pave the way for businesses, including restaurants and hair salons, to begin reopening at reduced capacity.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman stressed that while the state is offering more flexibility, close scrutiny may mean some counties won’t be ready to move into the next phase of the plan.
“We want to make sure we fully understand their capabilities and capacities,” Wiesman said of local health departments. “We are going to do our best to turn those (applications) around as quickly as we can, but carefully.”
This plan puts more onus on counties to take control of the process and propose what’s most safe, Wiesman added, with close collaboration between elected officials and public health staff.
Pierce County is the second most populous county in Washington state, making it the largest county to pursue loosened restrictions since COVID-19 effectively shuttered economies statewide.
Snohomish County, the state’s third most populous, also plans to move forward with a Phase 2 application. King County announced Friday that it is preparing to move forward with an application for modified Phase 1, which would allow “openings for several business sectors and personal activities.” King County officials acknowledged in a statement that the county lags behind key criteria to enter Phase 2.
Chen said the Tacoma-Pierce County Health Department is confident that its robust contact-tracing and case-investigation plan could contain any possible outbreaks that might occur.
“You don’t wait until you have a war to recruit soldiers. You get them trained up,” Chen said. “Some of them stay in active duty, some of them are reserves. And our concept is we’re going to train up 135 or so people to do case investigation and contact tracing.”
Some of them won’t be activated, Chen noted, but they’ll be prepared to mobilize within 48 hours if a surge of COVID-19 cases occurs.
Chen said the department recently received an allocation of $67 million from Pierce County’s CARES Act funding for public health recovery, which will fund those vital staff, as well as technical and support staff.
Executive Dammeier says Pierce County is poised to provide a million masks and another 2 million on the way to ensure enough protection for businesses, nonprofits and churches to operate safely. And hospitals have capacity in the event of any spike in cases.
Pierce County continues to see new cases daily. Most recent numbers show an average of 12 new cases per day.
“We have seen around the country and around the world how, even in places where they have done a great job in controlling the pandemic, there could be big outbreaks once you start to relax,” Chen said.
That’s why officials remain on high alert, despite the move to jumpstart the economy again: researchers are still working on a cure, and 99 percent of the county still is not immune to the virus, Chen stressed.
Even if the county is approved to move to Phase 2, Chen and Dammeier both said the public still must take precautions.
Inslee underscored that fact in his announcement Friday, stressing the importance of wearing face coverings in public, and requiring them in workplaces beginning June 8.
He also expressed concern about what he called an “extremely dangerous” rate of infection still present in Yakima County, which has the highest per-capita infection rate on the West Coast.