Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday afternoon that three Washington counties are not meeting the Phase 3 Healthy Washington metrics for reopening activities.
The three counties returning to Phase 2 are Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman. The rollback takes effect on Friday.
Phase 2 means 25 percent indoor capacity for restaurants, bars, gyms, retailers and worship services. Indoor social gatherings can have a maximum of five people from two different households. Outdoor social gatherings can have 15 people.
“These metric trends are driven by the virus and we must continue to do everything we can to sharpen our focus and keep COVID-19 activity down,” Inslee said in a news release. “It’s like a football game; we have done 95 yards on a 99-yard drive. We can’t let up now. These are not punitive actions; they are to save lives and protect public health.”
The news was met with disappointment and frustration in Pierce County.
“The news that our county will return to Phase 2 effective April 16 is discouraging," Pierce County Council Chairman Derek Young said. "This setback is a gut-punch to all of us, especially our Pierce County businesses that made it through the winter."
"Today’s news is certainly disappointing for Tacoma and Pierce County as it will have notable impacts on our community and our local businesses. I understand that this decision is based in data, and we have the power to change the outcomes in our community before the next evaluation," Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards said in a statement. "To be successful, we must remember that we are a resilient community. We have changed the tide on COVID-19 cases before in Pierce County, and we must believe that we can do it again."
State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, the House minority leader whose district includes part of south Pierce County, tweeted: "Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman County Representatives, Republicans and Democrats, should have a voice in the fate of their County. A year of emergency orders is enough. The Legislature is in session. They will have an opportunity to be counted."
To stay in Phase 3, counties with more than 50,000 residents -- like Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman -- must have fewer than 200 new COVID cases per 100,000 people over a 14-day period and have fewer than five new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people over a one-week period.
Smaller counties have to have fewer than 30 cases over a two-week period and fewer than three new COVID hospitalizations over a one-week period.
The data evaluating the counties was based on hospitalizations between March 24 and March 30 and case counts between March 20 and April 2.
The next evaluation of counties will be on May 3.
THE BUSINESS IMPACT
Nearly 70 state business organizations last Friday urged Inslee to delay for three weeks any decision to return any counties to the more restrictive standards. The groups wrote in a letter that a rollback “would punish struggling businesses for personal behavior while doing little to stop the spread of COVID.”
They said that any selective rollback would be counterproductive, noting that people in Phase 2 counties will travel to Phase 3 counties. The focus should be on increasing the vaccination rate, they said.
Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, repeated those concerns in a statement Monday afternoon to KNKX's Paula Wissel.
“The Washington Hospitality Association is disappointed to see three counties roll back to Phase 2. It’s especially heartbreaking for the hundreds of businesses and thousands of workers who will pay the price for a surge they did not cause. Additionally, we do not believe this will be an effective cover containment strategy, as people can easily cross county lines," he said.
"We will continue to keep our focus where we believe it is most important, which is on encouraging proven strategies, including wearing masks, practicing physical distancing, gathering safely in highly regulated areas. And, most importantly, we will continue to encourage as many people as possible to get the COVID vaccine so we can move as one state toward recovery."
The Pierce County Council is already taking steps to help the small businesses and nonprofits that will feel this setback in their bottom lines, Derek Young said.
"Council is prepared to make $4 million available from the county’s general fund to aid small businesses and nonprofits. We hope this helps retailers, restaurants, and fitness centers that recently expanded operations under Phase 3 to avoid layoffs and stay in business to get through what we hope is a short duration event," he explained in a statement.
In the meantime, all Washingtonians 16 and older are eligible for the vaccine beginning Thursday, April 15.
Rachel La Corte of The Associated Press contributed to this report.