Spokane County Commissioners voted Tuesday to ask the state to allow the county to move immediately to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, saying they’ve hit all the benchmarks to safely reopen.
Inslee, however, offered little hope that a decision would be made as quickly as Spokane officials wanted.
At a Tuesday afternoon news conference, he said criteria for larger counties to move early into the next phase of reopening might be set in “the next couple of weeks” and that he hasn’t had time to look at the Spokane proposal.
“We’re going to have a look at it,” he said, and will “ make that decision as soon as we can evaluate it.”
Citing a low number of new cases as well as few recent hospitalizations and deaths, County Commissioner Al French said Spokane County is ready to move up in the process. In addition to having lower case numbers, he said the region has enough hospital beds to accommodate a spike in cases once the county moves into the next phase of reopening.
“We feel like we’ve done everything necessary to open our county and get people back to work,” he said.
The three commissioners voted unanimously to draft a letter requesting early reopening Tuesday morning and sent it to the Governor’s Office Tuesday afternoon.
Their request includes a letter recommending a variance from Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz and letters from both Providence and MultiCare hospital systems assuring Lutz that there is adequate bed capacity and personal protective equipment in Spokane County.
Lutz’s letter, written Monday, recommended allowing the county to move to Phase 2 of the governor’s plan, due to recent COVID-19 case data, hospital capacity and the region’s plan for contact tracing.
The Board of Health, which includes elected officials from across the county, accepted the letter and voiced support. The County Commissioners also accepted the letter and voiced their support for it.
In a briefing Tuesday morning, Lutz said the county had plateaued in regards to new cases. Tuesday morning, there were no new cases of COVID-19, deaths or hospitalizations in Spokane County.
There have been 386 cases and 29 deaths so far in Spokane. Four people are hospitalized with COVID-19.
When the state first began taking requests for early reopening, it was limited to counties under 75,000 that had no new cases for three weeks. Last week Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state’s health officer, said Spokane didn’t qualify for the existing reopening process, but the state was looking at expanding the criteria to larger counties.
French said it’s not possible for Spokane to meet the criteria smaller counties have met, but he hopes Spokane can be an example for larger counties preparing to take the same steps.
In Phase 2 of Inslee’s four-part reopening plan, pet grooming, restaurants, hair and nail salons, and retail establishments may open in a limited capacity once the state issues specific rules for each industry. The governor already has issued rules for restaurants and construction, but other industries have not received guidance yet.
Businesses in industries that do not yet have guidance in the eight counties that reached Phase 2 over the past week have not been able to open.
According to the commissioners’ letter, leaders would like to move to Phase 2 as soon as possible as counties around them are beginning to reopen.
Commissioner Josh Kerns said many of those living in Lincoln and Stevens counties work in Spokane County, and for those economies to truly recover, both the economies where people live and work need to reopen in some capacity.
Kerns also said the commissioners’ decision has wide spread local support and the county has shown it has the hospital capacity without large waves of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths.
“We’ve been asking for weeks to be moving ahead of other areas in the state that have been much more impacted than we have,” Kerns said. “We think there’s a safe way for us to do so, move to Phase 2. I really hope the governor sees that.”
Commissioner Mary Kuney said instead of waiting for the guidance to be developed and handed down, commissioners followed the construction industries’ example by showing the state how they were prepared to address any potential problems and that they were ready to open safely.
“I saw this as a way to meet the metrics of what the governor asked us to do respectfully, and be proactive,” she said.
If the state moves Spokane to Phase 2 sooner, Kuney said the community still needs to continue precautions such as increased hand -washing and sanitizing so the region can continue to keep its new cases low and eventually move to Phase 3, when even more businesses will be able to reopen.
“I want to make sure people know that getting to Phase 2 doesn’t mean we can relax all those safety standards to continue to stop the spread,” she said.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, who strongly supported the reopening request, found hope in the governor’s pledge to at least consider Spokane’s proposal to move forward on a different timeline than the rest of the state.
“That was something that we have been advocating for for several weeks now,” Woodward said in a Tuesday news conference.
Although their endorsement is not required, the six Spokane County mayors intend to send Inslee a letter encouraging him to allow the variance.
The number of new daily COVID-19 cases has dropped, hospitals continue to have capacity and the health district has assembled a team of contact tracers, Woodward noted.
“We’re checking all the boxes,” she said, adding that the region would continue to share its data with the governor.
During his Tuesday news conference designed to outline the state’s new program of contact tracing, Inslee said there was “a strong possibility” that the state will review and develop criteria for larger counties to move to Phase 2 before the end of the month.
“I can’t give you an exact date,” he said. “I appreciate Spokane’s proposal. …We’ll talk to the health folks in Spokane as well.”
Although the governor has not released criteria for counties like Spokane to move into Phase 2, Woodward said officials wanted to be proactive in moving the economy forward.
“At the very least, it gets the ball rolling,” Woodward said.
Woodward said she hears from businesses every day that are impacted by the shutdown.
“A lot of our businesses, their survival is at stake, the health of our economy is at stake,” she said.
Reporters Adam Shanks and Jim Camden contributed to this story.
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