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News >  Washington

Bill to reopen Washington economy draws more than 1,000 to virtual public hearing

The Washington state Capitol in Olympia.  (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)
The Washington state Capitol in Olympia. (JESSE TINSLEY/The Spokesman-Review)

OLYMPIA – A bill that would move the entire state to Phase 2 of the governor’s reopening plan drew more than 1,600 people to a virtual public hearing Wednesday, with nearly 300 wanting to testify.

Restaurant owners and hospitality workers were among the biggest supporters of the bill, which is co-sponsored by 15 Republicans and one Democrat. Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan would allow restaurants to open indoor dining, fitness centers and indoor entertainment establishments to open to 25% capacity.

“We’re ready to reopen, and we’re ready to help the state recover,” Julia Gorton of the Washington Hospitality Association told members of the Senate State Government and Elections committee. “The hospitality industry and thousands of family-owned businesses need your help.”

Currently no region in the state is in Phase 2. In order to move from Phase 1, a region must meet the following four criteria:

  • A 10% decreasing trend in COVID-19 case rates.
  • A 10% decrease in COVID hospital admission rates.
  • An ICU occupancy rate less than 90%.
  • A test positivity rate of less than 10%.

As of Friday, no region had met all four criteria, although a few were close. The East Region, where Spokane is located, had met three of the four. The area’s percent positivity rate was too high – and increasing – as of Friday to move forward.

Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary of health for the COVID-19 response, told the committee the metrics are designed to prevent further surges and overrunning of hospitals. Some regions are very close to meeting Phase 2 limits, but they are expecting some increase in cases following the winter holidays.

“It is not the best time to move forward,” she said.

Senate Minority Leader John Braun, of Centralia, said the bill is based on science and based on the needs of Washington families. He encouraged the committee to listen to testimony with “open hearts and clear eyes.”

Brian McMenamin, part owner of McMenamins pubs and breweries, said he once had 3,000 people employed but now has slightly more than 1,000. He said assistance is needed in the industry “that has been singled out and decimated by the pandemic.”

Chad White, Spokane chef and restaurateur, said because his restaurants are so close to Idaho, they have been hurt especially hard. Idaho has looser restrictions, so more people drive the short distance there for dining.

“The playing field must be leveled,” he said.

Blair McHaney, president of Washington Fitness Alliance, said fitness centers have operated for nine months without revenue, but operating costs don’t stop. He said continued closures don’t recognize businesses for their efforts and investments to mitigate risks.

“We feel strongly that all businesses can operate safely at 25% capacity,” he said.

Health care workers testified against the bill. Jane Hopkins, nurse and executive vice president of SEIU 1199NW, said everyone is tired and wants the economy to open up, but she’s seen how quickly COVID-19 can surge in a community. There is no way the state can open its economy if the numbers stay the same.

“We have no economy if we’re all sick or dead,” she said.

Republicans also introduced a bill earlier this week that would require schools to reopen to in-person learning in some cases.

Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, of Spokane, told reporters Monday there should continue to be caution when discussing reopening and that legislators should continue to listen to public health experts.


Laurel Demkovich'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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