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Spokane County aims to ease limits by Memorial Day under new rules announced Tuesday

UPDATED: Tue., May 19, 2020

The parking lot of Northtown Mall is seen nearly empty during what would be normal business hours on the first full day of the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 26, 2020 in Spokane. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee announced new rules on Tuesay, May 19, 2020 that will qualify Spokane County to reopen retail stores. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
The parking lot of Northtown Mall is seen nearly empty during what would be normal business hours on the first full day of the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order on March 26, 2020 in Spokane. Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee announced new rules on Tuesay, May 19, 2020 that will qualify Spokane County to reopen retail stores. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)
By Jim Camden and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Spokane County can reopen parts of its economy and move to Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan – but only if it can meet new guidelines.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced new criteria for moving ahead of the rest of the state for counties like Spokane that have a relatively low rate of fatal cases of the disease compared to their population.

Spokane and nearby Adams County are among 10 counties eligible to make the request to the state Department of Health based on that formula, which stipulates that a county can have no more than 10 new cases of the virus per 100,000 people over a 14-day span.

A county must also have support from local hospitals and plans to track and contain new cases of COVID-19.

Local elected officials hope that means some businesses, including restaurants, might be allowed to open by this weekend.

“We want to be in Phase 2 before Memorial Day Weekend,” Spokane County Commissioner Al French said Tuesday.

Other Spokane County elected officials echoed that hope, and French and his fellow county commissioners passed a resolution on Tuesday and penned a letter to the governor requesting that the county be moved immediately into Phase 2.

The Spokane Regional Health District staff haven’t submitted their new application for a variance request, however. Amelia Clark, administrator at the health district, said they hope to do so in the next day or two.

The new application criteria from the Department of Health are much more detailed than those included in the request the county previously filed.

State Health Officer Kathy Lofy said she expects Spokane County will need to update its data but that the board of health and county commissioners will not have to vote again on the request.

Among myriad criteria the health district must include in its application, local hospitals must submit letters indicating they can accommodate a 20% surge capacity, as well as attest to having a two-week supply of personal protective equipment. Providence officials submitted a letter with the required details to the health district Tuesday, and MultiCare officials were finishing their letter on Tuesday as well.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said the county’s early efforts and advocacy have paid off. Although the state’s turnaround time on applications could be anywhere between one to three days, Woodward said she believes the response from the Washington Department of Health will come quickly.

“I believe that since we’ve already submitted a proposal once and that answer came back rather quickly, that in our talks with some of the other elected (officials) that the answer the second time will come very, very quickly,” Woodward said. “I am anticipating it will be in time for Memorial Day.”

Woodward asked that people comply with protocols like wearing masks and practicing social distancing when businesses open, so they can stay open.

Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs stressed that “we’re battling a virus, not a person or a politician.” As a member of the health board, Beggs supported the variance request last week. But on Tuesday, he urged patience, along with other elected officials.

“We still have to follow the public health procedures, because if you don’t follow them, you have this anarchy out there that can lead to serious health consequences,” Beggs said.

He said he’d love to offer Spokane residents and businesses a date certain for Phase 2, but Beggs said State Secretary of Health John Wiesman won’t be pushed into making a hasty decision.

The new criteria calls for much more widespread contact tracing, the process of tracking people who may have come in contact with a newly positive COVID-19 patient, informing them of their exposure and encouraging them to isolate themselves and their family to thwart the spread of the disease.

When Spokane County first applied for variance a week ago, Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz wrote that there were 28 contact tracers, including health district staff and volunteers. On Tuesday night, Clark said the county now needs to have 75 people ready to contact trace, in light of the state requirement that it has 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people.

“We were able to make it up with health district staff along with volunteers and university students. We were able to activate 75, and we’re still continuing to train and get them ready,” Clark said.

The state has trained nearly 1,500 people, including Department of Licensing staff and National Guard members, to help in statewide contact tracing efforts so far. Quickly identifying contacts of confirmed cases and getting them to quarantine for two weeks are key parts of the state’s strategy to reopening.

“From my limited knowledge, I think Spokane’s in pretty good shape for hospitals, but we’ll need to know what their contact tracing situation is, because that’s really important,” Inslee said.

Counties applying to go to Phase 2 early must also detail how they can offer places for people to isolate who cannot do so at home or who do not have a home.

Clark said Spokane County has two sites for isolation that could accommodate up to 50 people. The isolation site located at the fairgrounds is operational through May, but health officials would not disclose where the other site is located. State health officials want counties to demonstrate that they can provide isolation without barriers.

“They have to demonstrate the community has the capacity for folks to be housed there without charge for individuals that need the service,” Wiesman said at a news conference Tuesday. “That is something the government pays for, so it should not be a barrier.”

If all 10 counties make the requests and receive approval from Wiesman, about 30% of Washington’s population will be in Phase 2 of the Safe Start reopening plan, he said. The remainder of the state, including the three most populous Puget Sound counties, as well as some rural counties with recent outbreaks, would remain in Phase 1 and more limited economic activity.

Inslee wouldn’t speculate when those counties will be able to move to the next level of reopening, although he said he was “hopeful we can move forward on June 1.”

The decision won’t be made until closer to that date and will be based on analysis of data being collected on the spread of the virus.

Under Phase 2, restaurants can offer seating at limited capacity, retail stores not considered essential can have limited in-store customers, and barbers and stylists can begin cutting hair. Counties can apply to resume some or all types of business activities in that phase.

Counties cannot simply jump to Phase 3 of Inslee’s reopening plan after a few weeks, and the Department of Health has not released any decisions about how or when a county will be able to move ahead to that stage.

S-R reporter Adam Shanks contributed to this story.


Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story 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.

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