OLYMPIA – Washington will enter a new phase in the state government’s efforts to control the COVID-19 pandemic, replacing a stay-home order with a new program that will allow counties to have different amounts of business and recreational activity.
“We plan to move Washington forward on a county-by-county basis,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in announcing the change this afternoon.
The current “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order expires on Sunday. It will be replaced Monday with a new order he is calling “Safe Start – Washington’s Phased Reopening.”
As a key part of that transition, state residents will be urged to wear face masks when they are outside of the home, employers will be required to supply masks if two or more employees are in an indoor workplace, and stores will be required to post signs saying masks must be worn.
“It’s a small thing that can have a big impact on another person’s life,” Inslee said.
The new mask requirements, which take effect June 8, were supported by Dr. John Lynch, an infectious disease specialist at Harborview Medical Center, who said researchers have learned about COVID-19 in recent months and now know people with minimal symptoms can spread the disease.
They protect you and the people with whom you come into contact by screening out large droplets that can be pushed into the air by breathing, coughing or sneezing. They also can prevent you from touching your face, which is a way the virus spreads, he said.
“They’re not perfect,” Lynch said. “They’re one of many things.”
People are still being urged to stay home when possible and to limit travel or contact with people other than those in their household or at work.
While stores will be required to post signs telling customers to wear masks, they can but won’t be required to refuse service to someone who won’t wear one. Inslee said he thinks the state will get more compliance without making individual mask-wearing “a badge of honor than sending out people with handcuffs.”
The state is already in the midst of a phased reopening, with four steps of increased activity. Some 26 counties, including Spokane and all the surrounding counties, are in Phase 2, which allows some in-store retail activity; some reduced dining inside restaurants; personal services like hair and nail salons and barbershops with requirements for personal protection spacing; and religious services with limitations on the number of attendees and other precautions.
For counties in Phase 2 of the state’s gradual move to a postpandemic economy, the new system could mean asking and receiving permission to move to Phase 3 and open up even more businesses by early June.
They could apply to make that move after three weeks in Phase 2. For some small rural counties, that could be as early as Wednesday. For Spokane County, which received approval to move to Phase 2 on May 22, the earliest county officials could request a move to the next phase would be June 12.
For metropolitan King, Pierce and Snohomish counties and other hard-hit areas with higher numbers of residents testing positive for the virus, it could result in a path to Phase 2 or some modifications of their stricter Phase 1 limitations.
All counties will be able to apply to Secretary of Health John Wiesman for more flexibility in the type of businesses that can open or activities permitted if they can show it would be safe “based on target metrics and a holistic review of their COVID-19 activity and ability to respond,” the new order says.
Wiesman said processing the applications would take “a few days at least,” depending on the number that come in at any one time, and on an analysis of that county’s data, hospital capacity and ability to respond to the virus.
“We know that folks are anxious to open up business once again,” he said.
To move to a subsequent phase, a county would have to meet certain benchmarks, including fewer than 25 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people over two weeks, flat or decreasing hospitalizations for people who test positive for the disease and standards for testing and contact tracing of newly confirmed cases of the virus.
Those numbers are significantly less stringent than the original requirements for moving to Phase 2. Initially, small counties were required to have no new cases for three weeks. Earlier in the month, when the requirements were expanded for larger counties like Spokane, they were required to have no more than 10 new cases per 100,000 people for two weeks.
The new metric is still a conservative number, Wiesman said, and is used by California and some other states. Other data points are also studied, so moving ahead doesn’t rest on a single measurement.
“We’re seeing good progress with the work so far,” he said.
Areas that see outbreaks of the virus could be required to scale back some or all of the economic activity, or possibly drop down to a previous phase. County health districts could make those decisions on their own after consultation with state health officials, or Wiesman could order it based on the severity of an outbreak or signs that the local hospital system is being overwhelmed.
“If, in the end I am sufficiently concerned … I will have the authority to act,” Wiesman said.
Some change to the state’s stay-home order was widely expected because it was due to expire at midnight Sunday, but the details of the next step were tightly held until the afternoon announcement.
The Association of Washington Business, which has been advocating for the state to open more manufacturing, applauded the new requirements, adding it has set up a website to help businesses safely welcome back employees and customers.
“We’re pleased counties will have more flexibility and more manufacturers will have the ability to resume operations soon, even if they’re located in places that have not been approved for Phase 2,” Kris Johnson, AWB president, said in a news release.
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