OLYMPIA – Washington residents are being asked to continue precautions against COVID-19, and certain businesses are ordered to enforce limits or close, into the new year.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday morning he was extending restrictions put in place in mid-November, which bans indoor service at restaurants and bars, and closes many businesses that offer indoor activities or entertainment. Residents are urged to wear masks and practice social distancing in public and when gathering with people outside their household.
“What we do now will literally be a matter of life and death,” Inslee said. “These are perhaps the most important days in the holiday season.”
In the dark months of winter, state residents have a bright light with the prospects of vaccines that are expected to be approved in the coming weeks, he said.
Washington is scheduled to get 62,400 doses of the Pfizer vaccine around Tuesday, and a total of 219,000 doses by the end of the month, Health Department Secretary John Wiesman said. The first doses would go to health care workers.
The extension was quickly criticized by the Washington Hospitality Association, which contended it would “decimate” the restaurant industry.
Trevor Blackwell, owner of six Twigs Restaurants in Washington, including four in the Spokane area, said he was “disappointed but not surprised” that the restrictions were extended. The restaurant in the River Park Square mall is closed while those in the Spokane Valley, North Spokane and the South Hill are trying to survive on takeout and outdoor dining, although the latter is difficult with open-walled tents in the winter.
The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s are typically a busy and profitable time for restaurants and that period is all but wiped out in 2020, Blackwell said.
“I think there will be a lot of restaurants that are not going to make it,” said Blackwell, adding the company has laid off about 250 employees, many of whom were laid off early in the year with the previous restrictions then called back to work when the restaurants were allowed to reopen at lower capacities.
Inslee also announced an additional $50 million in economic aid to businesses affected by the continued closures.
State Commerce Secretary Lisa Brown said that money will double the amount announced in mid-November, and will be used for grants to small businesses for fixed costs such as rent, utilities and insurance. The maximum amount of the grants will be set after Friday, the deadline to apply, when the state knows how many applications it gets.
It will also take steps to insure money is distributed equitably across the state and among demographic groups, Brown said.
Inslee and other state officials are also lobbying Congress to pass another COVID-19 relief package. If Congress doesn’t act, the state will provide a form of pandemic unemployment assistance for unemployed workers who are scheduled to be knocked off that federal program late this month.
Washington as a whole and Spokane County saw a spike in the number of new cases of COVID-19 at the end of November. While the numbers aren’t complete for early December, they are projected to drop from the high of 3,445 confirmed new cases on Nov. 30.
Hospitalizations are up, and 80% of the state’s intensive care unit beds are occupied, Inslee said. The worst-case scenario based on projections has the state needing to double its ICU capacity by the end of the year.
The restrictions were tentatively scheduled to expire on Monday. Inslee extended them until at least Jan. 4, adding the early announcement was designed to give notice to businesses trying to decide whether they need to order food or other perishable goods for the rest of the month.
The restrictions are far-reaching as far as people’s ability to interact with family and friends:
- Indoor social gatherings with people from outside a household – defined as people living in the same domicile – are prohibited.
- Outdoor social gatherings should be limited to five people outside of a household.
- Restaurants and bars are closed for indoor service, but can offer takeout and limited outdoor service, with no more than five customers at a table.
- Fitness facilities and gyms, bowling centers, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums are closed for indoor services. They can offer limited services or have gatherings outdoors.
- Real estate open houses are prohibited.
- Wedding and funeral ceremonies are limited to no more than 30 people, and receptions for those ceremonies are prohibited.
- In-store retail is limited to 25% indoor occupancy, and food court indoor seating is closed. That’s a slight reduction from the current occupancy level of 30%, Inslee said.
- Religious services are limited to 25% of indoor occupancy or no more than 200 people, whichever is less, with no choir, band or ensemble performances in the services. Performances by soloists, or a single singer accompanied by a pianist, organist or other single musician, are allowed.
- Long-term care facilities can only allow outdoor visits except for people providing essential support and end-of-life care.
- Youth and adult sporting activities are limited to outdoors for team practices with the athletes required to wear masks.
Republican legislators issued a statement calling the extension “very disappointing,” adding that public health concerns include the mental health of people coping with both the virus and the shutdowns.
“Instead of unfairly restricting (small business owners) ability to earn a living, we should be working with them to find ways to reduce the spread of the virus,” Senate and House Republicans said in a news release. “We could achieve the same results by partnering with small business owners instead of targeting them.”
The extension did not come as a surprise to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who said she was relieved that the rollbacks were not more severe.
“The worst-case scenario would have been a shutdown like we saw in the middle of March, and we thought that could be a possibility,” Woodward said.
Businesses that try to remain open will be contacted by the state and advised to close or risk losing their licenses. If they remain open, they could face fines.
A restaurant in Lewis County that has resisted repeated warnings by the state faces fines of up to $9,000 per day, Inslee said. Having one business in a community ignoring the law is not fair to the businesses that follow the law, he added.
Although he insisted studies show the virus is spread at places where people gather indoors without masks, like restaurants and bars, he seemed to acknowledge the industry’s point that those aren’t the biggest risks for spreading COVID-19.
“It may be the most important thing in Washington right now is basically what we do around our own homes,” he said. “The most dangerous place is around our couches, in our homes.”
But for the requirements to wear masks and to avoid private gatherings indoors with people beyond the immediate household, Inslee said the state will rely on “the moral authority and wisdom” of Washington residents.
“Obviously, we’re not going to send the National Guard to anybody’s house,” he added.
Staff writer Adam Shanks contributed to this report.
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