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Spokane County denied variance to move early to next phase of reopening; leaders hopeful for clearance next week

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward speaks at an Inland COVID Response Joint Information Team news conference on Wednesday, after the state turned down a request from the county to move early to Phase 2 of the statewide reopening plan. (Facebook)

The Washington Department of Health denied Spokane County’s request to move to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan on Thursday because the state has yet to develop criteria for larger counties to request variance.

Elected officials remained hopeful, however, and said they anticipate hearing more by Monday.

“The answer was not what we expected it to be,” Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, said at a news conference late Thursday. “We are disappointed, but we are hopeful. I am taking this as not a ‘no.’ This is a ‘not yet,’ and I am very thankful that our request was considered by the governor and his secretary of health.”

Spokane County’s request was rejected on the basis of criteria used for counties with fewer than 75,000 people. Those criteria require counties to go three weeks with no new cases of COVID-19. Eight rural counties, six of them in Eastern Washington, have qualified to move to Phase 2 of reopening under the criteria.

Spokane leaders believe the governor and the state secretary of health will use Spokane as a basis for developing criteria for larger counties to get the green light to advance in reopening.

Woodward acknowledged that Inslee and his staff had indicated on May 4 that it would take a couple of weeks to develop criteria. Monday will mark that two-week point, she noted.

“We’re optimistic that because of the information and our data and our case that we sent to the governor and the secretary of health that that was used as guidance for that criteria, and because we were proactive and they already have our request that when they announce that criteria Monday, we will be opening up businesses in Spokane County,” Woodward said.

Ben Wick, mayor of Spokane Valley and chair of the Spokane County Board of Health, said this is just the beginning of getting to Phase 2, acknowledging that the community is not “out of the woods” with COVID-19 yet.

Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich stressed the importance of reopening the county soon.

“Last night, I had a conversation with a group of business owners that represent our restaurants and their message was clear: We won’t survive another two weeks,” he said.

The county’s request to the Department of Health has Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz’s stamp of approval, as he initiated the request with a letter on Monday indicating that Spokane’s decline in cases and hospitalizations, paired with community testing and hospital capacity, made a good case for accelerating the reopening of the county.

At a news conference Thursday, Inslee told reporters the state still lacks the swabs and some other test-kit components that are needed to conduct the level of daily tests it would like to have for the second phase of reopening. The federal government has assured the state more swabs are coming, but Washington officials have only received 10% of what was promised for May.

Inslee again refused to predict whether the state as a whole will be able to move to Phase 2 next month, only saying he was “very hopeful” that could happen on June 1.

The eight counties that have moved to Phase 2 have small populations and very low incidence rates of COVID-19. While some less-populous counties have been given the green light to open more businesses, that’s not true for all small counties, he said.

“There’s a misperception that all rural counties are out of the woods. That is, unfortunately, not the case,” Inslee said.

The determining factor isn’t Eastern Washington versus Western Washington or rural versus urban, but the number of cases. Some rural counties are seeing rises, and Yakima County may have the highest rate of cases in Western states right now, he said.

Inslee said he would advise Washington residents to avoid going to an inside event that would require staying around people not in their household “for any length of time” unless it was necessary.

S-R reporter Jim Camden contributed to this story.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is primarily funded by the Smith-Barbieri Progressive Fund, with additional support from Report for America and members of the Spokane community. These stories can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.