OLYMPIA – The spread of COVID-19 is likely declining in Washington, but the state isn’t going to “flip the switch” on orders to stay home or away from work, Gov. Jay Inslee said Tuesday.
“It will look more like the turning of the dial,” he said in a statewide address.“We will not be able to lift many of the restrictions by May 4. And we will let you know when we can lift restrictions as soon as we know.”
That could include changes in the near future to allow some elective surgeries to resume, after being stopped to conserve protective supplies for medical staff treating patients with the virus. It could also allow more outdoor activity, which has been restricted by the closing of state parks and bans on hunting and fishing.
Specifics about which activities would be allowed haven’t been decided, but “hunting and fishing have been in the bucket of outdoor recreation we’ve been watching,” David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, said later.
“Because of the collaborative work my office has been able to do with the construction industry and labor unions, we have come up with a sensible plan for allowing limited return to construction with safety measures in place,” Inslee added. “We hope to implement it very soon.”
An industry group that included representatives of builders and trade unions worked on a plan to gradually bring construction back, with a 30-point plan to ensure safe workplaces.
Restrictions began in February after the nation’s first cases of COVID-19 appeared in Washington. Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order for people who aren’t in essential jobs has been in place since late March and currently extends through May 4.
On Sunday, some 2,000 protesters gathered at the state Capitol, demanding to be allowed to make their own decisions about whether to return to work or attend gatherings. Many carried flags or signs such as “Give Me Liberty or Give Me COVID 19” and some were openly carrying firearms, which is legal in Washington.
Earlier Tuesday, a quartet of Republican legislators called for a special session to represent constituents who are being affected by the orders and bring some relief to people who are out of work.
If Inslee won’t call a special session, the legislators themselves should do it, the four lawmakers asserted. The state Constitution allows for such a process, although it has never been attempted in state history.
Inslee’s “road map” for relaxing restrictions relies heavily on data being collected and studied by health care officials. Those restrictions can be modified in the coming weeks if the data holds, but the health of state residents is the top priority, he said.
“The data tell us that if we were to lift all restrictions right now – or even two weeks from now – this decline will almost certainly stop and the spread of COVID-19 will go up,” he said.
To make sure the recovery holds up, the state needs enough testing equipment to test as many as 30,000 people a day. It currently tests about 4,000.
Inslee repeated his call for help from the federal government for the supplies needed for the test kits, adding: “We have more lab capacity than we have test kits.”
Washington will also need as many as 1,500 people to do “contact tracing” of those who test positive for the virus. Inslee likened those people to a “fire brigade” that could quickly respond to track where that person has been, and with whom they have been in recent contact, to isolate others infected with the highly contagious virus even if they don’t show symptoms.
“We need to come together, state and community leaders from all corners of Washington, to build an informed consensus on a safe and sustainable recovery,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Franklin County commissioners voted to open up businesses in their southeast Washington county. Inslee didn’t mention that decision in the speech, but Postman, his chief of staff, said later the state will be sending those county officials a letter explaining they don’t have the legal authority to lift state restrictions.
“Local government (restrictions) can be stricter than the state; they can’t be looser,” Postman said.
The state will set up three groups of community leaders to help plan the steps for recovery from the pandemic. One will focus on the public health and health care system; a second will develop plans for safe return to work and an economic recovery; the third will look at ways to provide social support to the most vulnerable and those affected by the virus.
“We’ve already come through part of this storm together,” Inslee said. “Only science, data and informed reasoning can lift us out of this crisis.”
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