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Opinion >  Guest Opinion

Tammie Hetrick: Three keys to reopening Washington: Vaccinations, increased occupancy rates and masks

By Tammie Hetrick Washington Food Industry Association

Three keys to reopening Washington: Vaccinations, increased occupancy rates and masks

By Tammie HetrickAfter months of anticipation, it is exciting to know the COVID-19 vaccines are finally here and being distributed across our state. With the vaccine rollout, we assumed that reopening Washington would come shortly after. The governor released a new plan, but to make reopening a success, we believe certain things are needed.

COVID-19 vaccines are important to reopening Washington. Whether you will receive the vaccine or not, Gov. Inslee has made it a point to only reopen Washington if cases and deaths decline and if people vaccinate against COVID-19. Vaccine distribution is slow, but we hope that more vaccines will be available as time goes on.

This scientific achievement might lead people to think you don’t have to wear a mask in public places – like the grocery store – if you get the vaccine. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. The vaccine does not replace the governor’s mandate on masks or other social gathering restrictions. All businesses will still be required to follow these mandates until they are updated or else they will face penalties from state agencies. People will need to wear face masks in grocery stores, convenience stores and other public places until further notice. So even if you received the vaccine, face masks are still a requirement when you are shopping for groceries, gas or other essential goods.

Gov. Inslee’s new reopening plan creates eight regions within Washington state. For example, nine counties comprise the “East” region, ranging from the large and populous Spokane County to the much smaller and rural Asotin, Garfield and Pend Oreille. This approach means smaller counties with lower COVID infection rates will remain closed for business because they are connected to larger counties with higher hospitalization rates or COVID deaths.

Until those infection rates in the bigger counties decline significantly, none of the businesses in the East region will be advancing to a new phase any time soon. Unfortunately, the governor’s plan does not increase retail capacity above 25 percent in the first two phases, meaning businesses must continue to enforce those limits with customers in stores, warehouses, and other facilities.

The occupancy rates for retailers should be increased to 50% in phase 2 instead of the same 25% that it is currently at. Our infection rates are some of the lowest of any industry. The independent grocery stores and convenience stores have proven their safety record by implementing best practices to protect customers and employees. We are proud that we have limited the spread within our stores and communities as it shows our commitment keeping our stores sanitized, employees and customers safe, while providing essential goods and services.

It is challenging for businesses of all sizes right now. Independent grocers, convenience stores and the wholesale companies that supply to them are particularly vulnerable because margins in our industry are so very thin. In non-COVID times, grocers might expect to have a 1 percent margin. With COVID and the increased PPE, cleaning and sanitizing costs and increased labor costs, that margin has dwindled significantly down to about a half a percent.

We are grateful that the vaccine is now in Washington state and that vaccination distribution is now underway. We ask that people continue to adhere to all safety protocols, and to wear a mask in stores regardless of their vaccination status, so we can continue the process of safely re-opening our state under the Governor’s phased approach – to protect our employees, customers and not face additional fines. Vaccine distribution, face masks, and increase occupancy will allow Washington to reopen, and the sacrifices made this past year will have been worth it. And with your help, we will get there.

Tammie Hetrick is the President and CEO of the Washington Food Industry Association, representing the independent, community-focused grocery and convenience store industries and its suppliers.

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