Spokane County must stick to the reopening schedule that most the rest of the state is on – at least for now.
Gov. Jay Inslee balked Tuesday when local officials pressed him to allow Spokane County to reopen the economy separate from the timeline he laid out for the rest of the state last week.
According to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, Inslee told her and several other local elected officials during a conference call Tuesday afternoon that he would only allow a county to move from Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan to Phase 2 if it has no new cases of COVID-19 for three weeks.
However, on Wednesday, state officials said Woodward was mistaken in how she interpreted what Inslee said in relation to Spokane County. Standards used to judge when larger counties like Spokane County should move to the next phase of Inslee’s reopening plan have not been finalized.
Woodward called the benchmark “unrealistic.” Along with other local leaders, Woodward feels the area’s data supports a relaxation of restrictions and reopening of the local economy by entering Phase 2 of the state plan ahead of schedule.
There are only 10 counties statewide that qualify under these conditions currently, and they must go through a variance process with county health and elected officials’ approval as well as ensuring the hospital capacity to combat any potential outbreak that could occur. Inslee is allowing these counties to proceed to the second phase of reopening.
The 10 small counties with no infections and no fatalities in three weeks can go to the next phase of business reopening if they want and if they meet certain other standards, like having sufficient personal protective equipment, hospital capacity and testing capability, Inslee said during a news conference after the conversation with Woodward.
Aside from those 10 counties, the SafeStart plan Inslee issued Monday states that he and the Department of Health will develop criteria – including, possibly, cases per capita – over the next two weeks for other counties to apply for a variance and partially implement the next phase.
Woodward and others have asked that their communities also be able to move into the next phase, Inslee said, and the state will continue to evaluate those requests.
“We will have to base it on data, of course, so we’ll look for the data as it comes in,” Inslee said. “Spokane didn’t quite meet that data. They might a couple weeks from now, so we’ll continue to have those discussions with local leaders.”
The slow approach is purposeful, state health officials said this week.
“We are moving and will move to Phase 2 as we think the situation warrants it. We’re clearly saying we’re not at that place today,” State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said on Monday.
While cases in Washington have peaked, the downward trending numbers are descending at a much slower pace, and about 200 new cases of COVID-19 are still reported on a daily basis. Spokane County has reported single-digit case number increases in recent days. The last double-digit increase of 16 new confirmed cases on April 24 was associated with outbreaks at the Spokane Veterans Home and one family with multiple cases.
On Tuesday, the county added one additional case, for a total of 375 confirmed cases.
Spokane elected officials expect to submit a regional proposal for loosening restrictions to the governor’s office next week.
“We will still make our case based on our data,” Woodward told reporters in a conference call on Tuesday.
The state entered Phase 1 of Inslee’s reopening plan on Tuesday with the reopening of some outdoor recreation and some businesses, such as auto sales. State health officials do not expect to enter Phase 2 of the reopening plan – which includes the reopening of retail businesses with restrictions and restaurants with up to 50% capacity – until June.
When asked what her benchmark would be for new cases to move ahead in the governor’s plan, Woodward suggested Spokane County is already under it.
“We’re seeing new cases in single digits,” Woodward said.
She placed more value on hospitalizations and deaths than daily case counts.
“That’s the true picture of what we’re dealing with when it comes to COVID-19,” Woodward said. “I don’t think we have a clear picture of what COVID looks like in our community because we haven’t had the testing that we really need.”
There have been 23 COVID-19 deaths in Spokane County. With 10 COVID-19 patients currently hospitalized and 66 total since the start of the pandemic, Woodward said there is adequate capacity in the hospital system. Spokane County also has established an isolation facility that has remained well-below capacity.
Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz has been less enthusiastic than elected officials in pushing for a reopening, but Woodward said he remains involved in the process and “guides us during a health pandemic.”
Lutz is “very involved in conversations we have with our strategic planning group which is working on our business plan,” Woodward added.
Editor’s note: This story was changed on May 6, 2020 to include information provided by Inslee’s office that says Woodward misinterpreted what Inslee’s standard will be to reopen Spokane County.
S-R reporters Jim Camden and Arielle Dreher contributed to this story.