The Washington State Department of Health cleared Spokane County to move to Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start reopening plan on Friday.
In a letter to the Spokane Regional Health District, Secretary of Health John Wiesman approved Spokane County’s request for a variance to further reopen businesses ahead of much of the rest of the state.
Phase 2 allows gatherings outside of one’s household with no more than five people per week. Some businesses are allowed to open but must comply with guidelines from the governor’s office.
Restaurants and taverns can open at half capacity. Retail stores, salons and barbershops are allowed to reopen as well. Real estate and professional services are also allowed to reopen. Outdoor recreation, like camping, is also allowed with no more than five people outside one’s household.
Local officials lauded Gov. Jay Inslee and Wiesman for granting Spokane County a variance, but struck a unanimous and measured tone of caution as more businesses reopen.
“Our safe and careful road to recovery is now beginning,” Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said.
Amelia Clark, administrator at the Spokane Regional Health District, reminded residents that guidance to wear a mask in public, especially indoors where physical distancing is difficult, remains in place.
Local elected officials asked residents and businesses to follow the Department of Health’s guidelines to keep the county progressing through the governor’s phases. That includes maintaining social distance of at least 6 feet, regularly washing hands and frequently cleaning high-touch surfaces.
“By violating state guidance, you are putting lives and livelihoods at risk,” Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick, chairman of the Board of Health, said on Friday. “Not only could we risk not progressing to Phase 3, but we could risk going back to Phase 1.”
The county cannot move to Phase 3 without authorization from Wiesman, and no county is allowed to move into the next phase before three weeks have passed.
Wiesman can also revoke the variance if things change, like significant community transmission, inadequate personal protective equipment or a lack of case investigation capacity. The governor also can reimpose restrictions on the county.
“We must enforce the guidance and show our governor that we are serious about practicing the measures put in place to control COVID-19 and keep our community healthy,” Clark said.
The approval of a variance came despite the announcement of 18 new COVID-19 cases in Spokane County on Friday, which followed 13 new cases on Thursday.
Friday marked the largest number of new cases in a single day since April 1, during the peak of the pandemic’s reach in Spokane County, though no new deaths and no new hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were disclosed on Friday.
As access to testing increases, Clark said local and state officials expect the potential for new cases to also rise. Asked if the county risks being sent back to Phase 1, Clark said the focus will be to keep an open line of dialogue with state officials “to know if we get to kind of a danger point,” but added that she is “not overly concerned” at this point.
“It’s something that we will continue to monitor,” Clark said.
Clark did not immediately have information about the 18 new cases on Friday morning. As a condition of its variance, Spokane must inform the Department of Health of any COVID-19 outbreak within six hours of learning it exists.
Spokane joins the neighboring counties of Lincoln, Stevens, Pend Oreille and Whitman in entering Phase 2, which allows many more businesses to reopen – but with strict guidelines.
Adams, Lewis and Grays Harbor counties moved to Phase 2 on Friday as well, for a total of 14 counties beginning to slowly reopen businesses. One-third of the state is eligible to move to the second phase, but not all counties have applied. The governor’s current “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order expires at the end of the month, and he released a statement Friday saying they are working to determine next steps.
“As I have repeatedly said before, these are decisions that are driven by public health data and science, not the calendar,” Inslee said in a news release.
“To be clear: This does not mean that we will be able to open every county in the state on June 1. Counties that continue to have large numbers of infections are not in a position to open up stores, restaurants and services safely.”
In keeping with the past approach, those who do violate the guidelines in Spokane County will not be cited. Instead, the focus will be on “education,” Mayor Woodward stressed.
Wick, who said local businesses are “in survival mode,” told Spokane residents “your vigilance has made a difference” and advocated that they continue to work to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“We have to think about the next several months and how we can avoid the setbacks that could further harm our community,” Wick said.
Business leaders are working to improve access to personal protective equipment, or PPE, and sanitation supplies for businesses, according to Alisha Benson, CEO of Greater Spokane Incorporated.
GSI publishes a list of local suppliers of PPE that it will update daily, and is working to find other avenues to secure the much-needed supplies. The state Department of Commerce and Association of Washington Business are expected to launch an online marketplace next week that will help support the effort, Benson added.
“It is a challenge and a pinch point for business as they’re working to reopen safely,” Benson said.
GSI is also working to point local businesses to financial resources that will assist them in reopening.
The goal, Benson said, is to ensure businesses can not only reopen safely, but stay open and maintain the confidence of their customers and employees.
Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns celebrated that thousands of people can now return to work.
“This has been an extinction-level event for many of our businesses, but today is when we change that,” Kerns said.
However, moving to Phase 2 by no means snapped business immediately back to normal levels in Spokane, as evidenced by the numerous empty dining chairs around the city during peak dinner rush hours on Friday night.
Downtown, a few people ate at a window table in Mizuna’s otherwise sparsely occupied dining room. Several people enjoyed drinks together at both Wild Dawgs and Crave.
Heading toward Browne’s Addition, Brick West Brewing was buzzing with a dozen or so people inside, and several diners sat outside at Pacific Pizza in the heart of the historic neighborhood.
And around 7:30 p.m., only a few people filled tables in at South Perry Pizza’s dining room.
Still, for several Spokane Valley businesses, the Phase 2 variance approval was a long time coming.
Dave’s Bar & Grill, a staple of the Spokane Valley community, had been open for takeout only and eliminated its popular breakfast service during the stay-home order.
“We’re excited, but it’s a whole new world,” Susie Olsen, general manager of Dave’s Bar & Grill, said of the reopening. “We are all learning to do our jobs again. We are ready to get back to serving customers.”
The establishment reduced its capacity, installed Plexiglas barriers, spaced tables 6 feet apart and placed a hand-sanitizing station at the entrance.
When Dave’s Bar & Grill posted on its Facebook page that it was reopening to diners on Friday, calls from customers flooded in to confirm.
“Everybody is excited to get back here,” she said.
The Trellis Marketplace owner Darcee Terhaar was pleased that local government kept pursuing the variance request to move Spokane County to Phase 2 of Inslee’s Safe Start reopening plan.
The Trellis Marketplace, which has been open for 17 years in Spokane Valley, sells home goods, jewelry, furniture, barware and unique gifts for local vendors.
Although the business was open for curbside pickup during the stay-home order, it didn’t receive a Paycheck Protection Program loan or grant funding. It was a somewhat of a struggle to sustain operations because three months is a long time to go without revenue, Terhaar said.
“It’s going to be a long road back to the new normal, whatever it looks like,” she said. “Just because our doors are open doesn’t mean it’s over. We have a long road to recovery.”
Terhaar installed a glass barrier – a repurposed old farm window – at the cash register. Staff are also frequently sanitizing the store, wearing masks and monitoring social distancing.
Terhaar has developed a base of loyal customers and is looking forward to welcoming them back to the store.
“It’s not just about the stuff that’s here,” she said. “It’s about connecting with people.”
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