Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward excoriated Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday for insisting that Spokane go at least three weeks without a new COVID-19 case before it jumps ahead in the state’s reopening plan – but there was a fundamental misunderstanding between state and local officials.
Inslee’s office clarified Wednesday that the three-week rule applies to counties with fewer than 75,000 residents and is one of several standards they must meet to move forward ahead of the schedule laid out in Inslee’s reopening plan.
In an email to local officials, including Woodward, who participated in Tuesday’s call, Adam McDaniel, Inslee’s Eastern Washington representative, said there may have been “some confusion as to the different variance processes” allowed under Inslee’s plan to reopen the state’s economy.
McDaniel said Inslee was responding to a question from Pullman Mayor Glenn Johnson when describing the existing criteria for counties with fewer than 75,000 residents.
“Obviously, some of our larger counties are unable to meet this metric,” McDaniel wrote in an email forwarded to The Spokesman-Review by Inslee’s office.
In a statement on Wednesday, Woodward said she looked forward to the issuance of criteria for larger counties to reopen. She added that she would continue to work with the governor through an “evolving process.”
“We appreciate the clarity offered today by his office and look forward to additional guidance related to reopening the Spokane region,” Woodward said.
The criteria for larger counties or regions of the state that want to request a variance to open early are still being developed, the phased reopening plan says.
Asked if there was any further clarification, Inslee’s office replied with a comment from Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer.
“Spokane does not meet the criteria for applying for a variance at this time (less than 75,000 people and no cases within three weeks). We are looking at regional data and considering whether these criteria can be expanded in the future,” Lofy said in that statement.
Woodward sharply criticized Inslee on Tuesday on a conference call with reporters and on Twitter, calling the three-week benchmark “unrealistic” for a county with more than 500,000 residents and lamenting the impact the shutdown was having on local businesses.
Woodward was one of several local elected officials on the call with Inslee on Tuesday.
Spokane City Council Present Breean Beggs was among them, and told The Spokesman-Review Inslee did not insist on three weeks without a COVID-19 case in order for Spokane to qualify for a variance.
“He said that as far as Spokane was concerned, he would consider different criteria for reopening over the next two weeks,” Beggs said.
That’s exactly how it’s laid out in the written plan Inslee released on Monday.
The SafeStart Washington plan states that Inslee and the Department of Health will develop criteria for counties to apply for a variance and move onto the next phase in reopening in the coming weeks. It does not lay out specific criteria, but suggests cases per capita could be among them.
Phase 1 of the SafeStart Washington plan began on Tuesday with outdoor recreation and some industries reopening with restrictions. Phase 2 twould allow more businesses to reopen, again with restrictions.
Counties with a population of less than 75,000 residents that have not had a new case in three weeks can apply for a variance early and move on to Phase 2, but only with the approval of their health officer, board of health, county board of commissioners and local hospitals.
Woodward was not alone in the misunderstanding.
Spokane County Commissioner Mary Kuney, who was also on the call, believed the debate to be over a three-week standard. On Wednesday, she learned from Spokane Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz that the state is defining separate standards for larger counties to apply for a variance.
“I hadn’t seen the fine print, and since they don’t have any metrics yet, that is what you have to go off of,” Kuney said.
Woodward and other local officials have advocated that Spokane is ready for Phase 2, telling reporters on Tuesday that there remains sufficient capacity in the local hospital system and daily case counts have remained in the single digits.
She suggested that hospitalizations and death counts would be a more accurate and informative measure of the region’s readiness for reopening compared to the total case count.
Kuney agreed and said she stressed hospitalizations as an important metric in the phone call with Inslee.
“We’ve shown that we haven’t had a surge in our numbers,” Kuney said.
Even as the economy reopens, Kuney reminded Spokane-area residents “we don’t relax the washing of our hands, wearing our masks, because otherwise we could see an increase.”
Regional leaders are expected to pitch Inslee a plan to reopen in the coming days.
McDaniel, the governor’s Eastern Washington representative, told local officials in Wednesday’s email that Inslee is “looking forward to seeing the plan for Spokane (or a regional plan).”
Lutz told The Spokesman-Review on Wednesday that while the state has not laid out specific criteria to apply for a variance, work already has begun on collecting data that will be key to moving forward.
That includes metrics such as the number of licensed hospital beds and intensive care unit beds, the number of outbreaks in long-term care facilities and the number of tests performed per day.
“Just looking at the metrics that are being asked of us right now, I feel pretty good about (applying for a variance),” Lutz said. “The governor is very cautious, rightfully so, and he wants to have the system in place to box in the virus.”
But there’s work still being done to finalize plans for isolation, as well as standing up a team to conduct contact tracing, he noted.
“Once we have all that in place, I will feel more comfortable,” Lutz said.
Jim Camden contributed to this report.