Washington is done with "Stay Home, Stay Healthy." Now, we're moving into "Safe Start." That's the branding for Washington's phased re-opening. Gov. Jay Inslee described it as leaving one "lifeboat" for another. We just need to make sure it doesn't have any holes in it, he said.
Inslee announced on Friday that Washington will re-open with a "county-by-county" approach just days before the current stay-home order is set to expire. Starting on June 1, each county will start in its current phase (for example, King County, which is in Phase 1 will start in Phase 1) but county executives can apply to the secretary of health to move to the next phase.
In this proclamation, "counties will have more flexibility to demonstrate that they have the capability to stay on top of the virus," Inslee said. Those decisions are started by the county but whether or not shifts into new phases happen will depend on whether a county hits the necessary "targets."
Now, as far as COVID-19 cases are concerned, counties will need to report 25 or fewer new cases per 100,000 residents over a two week period as well as flat or decreasing hospitalization trends and a reproductive rate that's less than one. Those case numbers are a shift away from old criteria for Phase 2 in Washington. Prior to Friday, counties could only qualify if they fewer than 10 cases per 100,000 residents.
Case numbers vary wildly from county to county, especially in Yakima County where the infection rate is 481 per 100,000 residents. "We are very, very concerned that if we don’t take additional steps in Yakima County it could become even more explosive," Inslee said.
Wild disparities in how close counties are to these targets
Average COVID-19 cases per 100K residents for May 10-23:
Grays Harbor: 3
Yakima: 481 https://t.co/Wolmrm3MZi
— Will James (@OtherWillJames) May 29, 2020
Additionally, to qualify, counties will have to make sure their hospitals have enough capacity and will need to increase testing and report fewer confirmed COVID-19 cases. Contact tracing will have to ensure that 90 percent of people that come into contact with an infected person are alerted within a day of a positive test result.
These are not individual requirements but each "will be evaluated in their totality," Inslee said.
For counties that don't quite hit these Phase 2 requirements, there's an option for a modified Phase 1. Like a Phase 1.5, Inslee joked. That will be up to counties to decide what those modified phases look like.
King County Executive Dow Constantine announced that while King County does not qualify for Phase 2, restrictions on businesses and activities will be relaxed almost in accordance with Phase 2. Under a modified Phase 1, gatherings in groups of five or fewer outside of the household are allowed, restaurants can only have 50 percent of capacity outdoor only, and other businesses will allow opening with reduced capacity such as only allowing 15 percent of occupancy for retail. Hair salons and barbers will be open, too!
"We're not out of the woods yet," Constantine said. "This is a big step in the right direction. We will be monitoring our progress over the course of two weeks."
If everything checks out, more businesses and activities will come back.
Currently, there are around 26 counties already in Phase 2. Those counties can apply to transition to Phase 3 after three weeks in Phase 2. The earliest that any county could get to Phase 3 is June 3. At any time, if things take a turn for the worse, a county can request to roll back to a previous phase or restrict some activities again. The secretary of health can make that call as well.
"This does not mean we’re returning to normal," Inslee said. Officials are still stressing that people should stay home if they can and that they should limit travel to other counties. Also, all of these re-opening phases will be accompanied by a new rule: wearing face masks. That will take effect on June 8.
Inslee has ordered that cloth face masks will be necessary for all employees in a workplace where other people are around as well as in retail stores. If you're not wearing a mask a store owner can kick you out of a store.
As we move forward, it's important to remember that the COVID-19 risk is not going away, Inslee stressed. He doesn't want this thing to "spring back."