Thurston County is poised to enter Phase 2 of reopening as soon as next week, a step that would be a first among counties in the populous Puget Sound region.
Under Gov. Jay Inslee's "Safe Start Washington" plan, Phase 2 allows restaurants, retail stores, hair and nail salons, and offices to reopen their doors, with restrictions meant to limit spread of the novel coronavirus.
The county's three-member Board of Health voted unanimously in favor of the move Friday morning.
"This is the first step in that recovery," said John Hutchings, a Board of Health member and county commissioner. "It's not, 'Oh everything's just fine now, peachy keen.' There are still concerns and we still need to be wise. But it's a momentous day nonetheless."
County commissioners are expected to vote Tuesday in favor of entering Phase 2, after which state officials must sign off. If approved, Thurston County would be the state's second most populous county to enter Phase 2, after Spokane.
Thurston County, home to Olympia, is eligible because it has largely avoided the widespread outbreaks of the hardest-hit counties. To apply for Phase 2, a county must have fewer than 10 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day span. It also must have a certain number of contact tracers able to track and contain new outbreaks, among other criteria.
Thurston County, despite being a short drive from the hardest-hit areas of the state, has had 124 confirmed cases and just one death of COVID-19 as of Thursday. That's a small fraction of the infections and deaths seen in nearby Pierce, King, and Snohomish counties.
But Thurston County's health officer, Dr. Diana Yu, said residents must remain cautious.
"The virus is still around," Yu said before the Board of Health vote. "And moving into Phase 2 does not mean mean we're out of the woods."
Board of Health Chairman Tye Menser echoed those sentiments in an interview ahead of the vote. He said Thurston County's success or failure at safely reopening could affect the trajectory for other parts of the state.
"If we're unsuccessful in the smaller counties, it's going to impact the larger counties," said Menser, who's also a county commissioner. "And it's going to further detriment our state economy and people's freedoms and all of that. So we really have to do this right."
He said Phase 2 is a time to be more stringent, not less, about precautions like maintaining distance from other people and wearing masks.
"I see a lot more cars on the road, some lines outside stores I didn't see before," Menser said. "And I think that people are going to want to feel like a movement to Phase 2 means, 'OK we're done with this.' And that's not at all the case."
More than a dozen counties already have entered Phase 2, mostly rural counties in Eastern and Southwest Washington. More than 10 others have met the criteria to apply, including Kitsap, Island, and San Juan counties, and several on the Olympic Peninsula.