Stevens, Wahkiakum and Skamania counties can proceed to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start reopening plan, after the Washington Department of Health approved the counties’ variance requests on Monday.
There are now eight counties that have been cleared to enter Phase 2, which includes the reopening of in-home services such as housekeeping, retail stores, real estate offices, professional and office-based businesses, beauty salons, pet grooming and limited seating restaurants.
However, some Phase 2 businesses will have to wait until the governor’s office issues safety criteria for each industry and then be able to meet those guidelines before reopening.
The state health department allows counties with fewer than 75,000 residents and no new cases for three weeks to apply to skip ahead to Phase 2, while the rest of the state’s counties are slowly entering Phase 1 of the governor’s plan. Stevens County had no new cases over the weekend, and Monday hit the three-week mark with no new cases.
While Ferry, Pend Oreille, Columbia, Garfield and Lincoln counties have been in Phase 2 since Friday, most businesses haven’t yet received the guidelines from the state that they need to open to the public. As of Monday night, Inslee’s office had released Phase 2 guidelines for both the construction industry and restaurants.
Larry Bennett, owner of Audrey’s Restaurant in Newport in Pend Oreille County, said he hopes he’ll be able to reopen the restaurant’s dining room Friday with a reduced capacity. He won’t make a firm decision on when to reopen until he sees the state’s guidelines for restaurants.
“If the standards are too stringent, we may stay with to-go orders for the time being,” he said. “If I have two people doing nothing but sanitizing, I can’t afford the labor.”
Bennett said the restaurant laid off about 75% of the staff in March, and he hopes to bring back as many employees as he can when it reopens but may not be able to rehire everyone. Bennett is the second generation in his family to operate the restaurant and he said he’s grateful that the community, which is also going through a difficult time, is still supporting them. He said it’s not a matter of if Audrey’s Restaurant will reopen, it’s just a matter of when.
Other businesses are hoping to get their guidance soon.
Shannon Castillo, owner of salon Nails by Shannon in Newport, said she’s researched other states’ guidelines for salons while waiting, rearranged chairs for social distancing and placed sneeze guards on tables. She’s also planning to schedule for 10 minutes between customers to give her time to sanitize the salon, and she will only allow two customers at a time in the business when she is able to open.
“I’ve gotten masks, shoe covers, anything and everything that I could think of to keep my clients safe,” she said.
She said she understands why much of the beauty industry is not seen as an essential business, but many of her customers depend on her. A significant percentage of her clients are older community members who are unable to do their own foot care. Going to a salon regularly allows them to get basic problems that could lead to ingrown nails resolved without worsening to the point that they need medical care.
She said as soon as the state issues guidance, she plans to follow it and reopen. She knows her clients, who have been calling to ask for details for months, will return.
Based on their discussions with state health officials, Matt Schanz, administrator of the Northeast Tri-County Health District, expects to see the additional industry guidelines for Phase 2 businesses released by Tuesday.
The health district is available to businesses for walk-throughs or questions as guidelines are distributed, Schanz said, and the Stevens County Emergency Management department has distributed reopening starter kits to about 100 businesses in the region.
Health officials in counties moving to Phase 2 are not taking their trailblazing role lightly. While some parts of Washington have not seen outbreaks or wide community spread of COVID-19, other regions are still considered hotspots. The state averaged about 200 new cases confirmed per day last week.
“These variances are a big deal if you think about where the state is as a whole,” Dr. Sam Artzis, health officer at the Northeast Tri-County Health District, said on a press call Monday. “It’s a big deal for these counties to open up ahead of other counties, they are using us as a template, so to speak.”
Maggie Christie, owner of Shanty Boutique in Newport, hopes to open as soon as possible. The store, which sells both clothing and gifts, usually has double the business in late spring and summer that it does in winter and has already missed part of its busiest season.
Christie said online sales and a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal government have helped her business stay afloat, but she is ready to open.
“We’re going to take all of our precautions pretty seriously,” she said. “I want our employees to be safe, as well as the customers.”
While waiting for guidance from the state on how the boutique should reopen, Christie has looked to what big box stores are doing: purchasing plexiglass screens to protect customers and employees at checkout, acquiring masks and putting tape on the floor for social distancing. She said the most important guidance is what the store should do with clothes customers have tried on. She’s heard that other businesses have steamed them, which she is leaning toward if she can, or let them sit for a set number of hours before allowing customers to peruse them again.
When guidelines are released from the state, she plans on getting whatever she needs and opening as soon as she can.
Spokane is now partially surrounded by counties opening to Phase 2 as soon as this week, with Lincoln, Ferry, Pend Oreille and Stevens counties all preparing to reopen, and health officials are wary of travel into the region.
Last weekend, Northeast Tri-County Health District officials saw lots of recreational vehicles headed north throughout their region.
“What we’re trying to encourage as much as we possibly can is to stay local, shop within your own communities, recreate in your own communities, we don’t want to do things to encourage people to come to Stevens County until we’ve got the green light locally,” Schanz said.
Technically, all but the eight counties with variances are still under essential, travel-only restrictions, consistent with Inslee’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy Order, which has been extended through the end of May. Phase 2 allows nonessential travel for Phase 2 activities only.
Schanz emphasized that the Tri-County regional opening of businesses is for local residents in those communities only, discouraging travel from outside the region.
“Our job is to try our very best to appeal to the better senses of folks out there to say that this is so we, locally, can get things up and going again,” he said.