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Mayor, Spokane county commissioners change tune on moving to Phase 3

UPDATED: Fri., June 26, 2020

The Spokane Regional Health District building pictured in 2017. Spokane County commissioners last week urged moving to Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee's reopening plan, but Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said cases of the virus were growing too much to loosen restrictions.  (JESSE TINSLEY)
The Spokane Regional Health District building pictured in 2017. Spokane County commissioners last week urged moving to Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee's reopening plan, but Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz said cases of the virus were growing too much to loosen restrictions. (JESSE TINSLEY)
By Rebecca White Arielle Dreher and Adam Shanks The Spokesman-Review

A surge in new cases of COVID-19 has persuaded the Spokane County commissioners and Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward to back off their earlier push to loosen pandemic restrictions.

As early as last week, the commissioners and Woodward were requesting that health officials allow Spokane County for an immediate move to Phase 3 of the governor’s re-opening plan. But in interviews on Friday, they said cases need to drop and more people need to follow safety measures before they will again advocate for further re-opening.

Last week Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz would not consider the county commissioners’ request to immediately start the process to move the county to Phase 3 of re-opening, citing evidence of community spread. Since Lutz rejected commissioners request, there have been 274 new cases.

Spokane County Commissioner Al French said commissioners were having a “continuous conversation” with health officials about new cases and hospital capacity and said he doesn’t plan to push for re-opening for a couple weeks at least.

“We’re working on a case-by-case basis until we see progress, and a drop in the numbers,” he said. “Then, we’ll go ahead and make another request, but I don’t see that happening in the next week or so.”

In the mean time, he urged everyone to take safety precautions and wear a mask.

“I think the biggest thing we need to be conscious about is wearing the mask and trying to drive these numbers down so we can get our businesses back open.”

Lutz said that without more people physically distancing, wearing face coverings and following gathering guidance for Phase 2, residents can expect to stay put in the governor’s reopening phases. As it is, hospitalizations have doubled in the last two weeks and case counts have ballooned.

“We’re not going into Phase 3 anytime soon,” Lutz said.

In fact, while moving back a phase is not likely, stricter enforcement on wearing face coverings could be around the corner. Gov. Jay Inslee and Secretary of Health John Wiesman visited Spokane on Thursday, and the governor warned that an order similar to the one issued in Yakima County is possible here. In Yakima County businesses cannot serve customers without facial coverings.

On Friday, Wiesman’s statewide masking order took effect, requiring Washingtonians to wear face coverings when in public, both indoors and outdoors, when physically distancing at least six feet from others is not possible.

Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney said the high number of new cases is concerning and people need to take precautions when they can, and wear f facial covering when around other people, even a scarf if they’re uncomfortable with masks.

Kuney said she didn’t have a specific date she planned to push for re-opening again, saying it would depend on advice from the health officer and the hospitals, as well as the number of new cases.

“I think it’s a continual monitoring of the situation,” she said. “You’ve got to look at the numbers over a rolling 14-day average. I don’t think you can say any time frame until we can get our numbers back down.”

Just 10 days ago, Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward supported the county commissioner’s request to move into Phase 3. But on Friday, she said that while she anticipated a rise in the number of cases to increase due to robust contact tracing and testing, the recent uptick in hospitalizations is “concerning.”

“We don’t want to see that increase, and I think our hospitals are very concerned,” Woodward said.

Woodward said she understands the need many feel to move into Phase 3, especially given that Spokane is surrounded by counties already at Phase 3 and bordered by a state with fewer restrictions. But the fastest way to get there, she stressed, is to wear a mask. She encouraged residents to wear one, and local businesses to require that customers don one to receive service.

When local officials met with Inslee on Friday, Woodward said the primary topic was the mask order, and said the governor leaned on them to help encourage compliance.

When Woodward posted on Facebook about masks earlier this week, she received about 1,400 responses – more than she ever has before, she said. The majority of commenters opposed wearing a mask, and the prevailing reason was that people did not want the government to tell them what to do.

“I understand that, but we’re talking about a health pandemic like we’ve never seen before and sometimes you have to take more extraordinary measures…I don’t know anybody who likes wearing a mask, but to me it’s a small sacrifice so we can get to that next phase,” Woodward said.

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