OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday announced he would not extend the state’s COVID-19 stay-at-home order beyond Sunday and would allow counties more flexibility to apply to advance through the current four-phase reopening plan using updated benchmarks that some larger counties had been seeking.
The stay-at-home order — in place since March 23 — was set to expire Sunday night. With the addition of two more counties Thursday, 26 of the state’s 39 counties are currently approved for Phase 2, which allows restaurants and taverns to reopen at half capacity with limited table sizes, hair and nail salons and barber shops to resume business, and retail stores to reopen for in-store purchases at 30% capacity. It also allows additional outdoor recreation and gatherings with no more than five people outside of a person’s household.
“Counties will have more flexibility to demonstrate that they have the capability to stay on top of the virus,” Inslee said. “This does not mean obviously that we’re returning to normal. It means that three months to the day after we declared a state of emergency, we’re successfully moving forward.”
Immediately after Inslee’s announcement, King County —Washington’s most populous county — announced it would apply Monday to allow a limited re-opening of some businesses, including outdoor dining at restaurants at 50% capacity and time-limited in-store retail at 15% of building occupancy. Also, the county that is home to Seattle would seek to allow outdoor gatherings of 5 or fewer people.
“We still aren’t where we need to be to reopen all our activities but the news is still good because we are moving in the right direction,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.
Initially, only counties with a population of less than 75,000 and no new cases of COVID-19 over three weeks could apply for a quicker reopening. But last week, Inslee modified those metrics, allowing those with fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a 14-day period to apply for a variance from the order. Some larger counties, including Pierce and Snohomish, had argued the case count requirement was too strict and that their counties were ready to advance.
Now, starting Monday, counties can apply to move to the next phase or to add new business activity, with the applications assessed on several targets, including whether the counties have had fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period.
Their application also will be measured on the reproductive rate of the virus in the county, hospital bed capacity, and number of outbreaks in workplaces and nursing homes. The counties also have to submit testing data and target number of confirmed cases and contacts reached in contact-tracing investigations. The guidance offered by the governor’s office said that the applications will be considered as a whole, and that not meeting one target won’t necessarily prevent the state from approving the county’s application.
Several counties are well above the new benchmark of new cases per population rate, including Yakima, which had a rate of 481 cases per 100,000 residents for the two-week period ending May 23.
Secretary of Health John Wiesman said that for counties with very high rates, “we’re going to have to be extremely cautious about how we move forward.”
More than 21,000 people in Washington state have tested positive for the coronavirus and at least 1,111 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.
A county that is still not eligible to advance beyond the first phase can apply for a “modified” Phase 1, as King County announced it would do. In addition to restricted outdoor seating at restaurants and limited in-person retail, the modified phase allows some Phase 2 activities, like construction and manufacturing. It also allows professional services, personal services at pet grooming, at 25% of building occupancy.
The new guidance builds on several restrictions that have been lifted over the past month, including fishing and golfing, the reopening of state parks and the resumption of existing construction. Earlier this week, Inslee announced that churches, mosques and synagogues can resume in-person services, with those in counties in the second stage of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan allowed to have smaller in-building services and the remainder limited to outdoor services with no more than 100 people.
Once counties have been in Phase 2 for at least three weeks they can apply to move to Phase 3, which expands group gatherings to 50 or less, including sports activities, and allows restaurants to increase capacity to 75%. Gyms and movie theaters could reopen at half capacity, but nightclubs and entertainment venues will still remain closed during this phase.
Most public interactions resume in the final phase, with bars, restaurants and entertainment and sporting venues returning to their regular capacity.
Also Friday, Inslee announced that starting June 8, workers are required to wear facial coverings unless they don’t interact with others on the job. Employers must provided the needed materials to their employees. Face coverings aren’t required, but are strongly encouraged, to be worn by customers or others while in public.
___ Associated Press writer Lisa Baumann contributed from Seattle.