OLYMPIA – Washington regions will have slightly more flexibility to reopen with new changes to the state’s phased reopening plan, but the Spokane area won’t be moving forward yet.
Regions may now move forward to Phase 2 if they meet three out of the four metrics, a slightly looser standard than the previous requirement to meet all four, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday in a news conference. Two of the state’s eight regions will also be moving forward to Phase 2 beginning Monday: the West region, which includes King County, and the Puget Sound region, which includes Thurston County. Those regions represent about half of the state’s population, Inslee said.
The changes come after conversations with public health partners and on the state’s vaccination rates, Inslee said.
“It’s the best plan we can fashion to fit the current circumstances,” he said.
To advance, regions must now meet three out of these four metrics:
- A 10% decreasing trend in 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%.
Inslee announced a new reopening plan earlier this month. Since then, the entire state has remained in Phase 1, which keeps the state relatively closed. Phase 2 allows restaurants to open indoor dining and indoor fitness centers to open at 25% capacity.
The most recent metrics in Spokane’s East region show it is meeting the hospital admissions rate, as well as the ICU occupancy rate. However, the case rate, as well as the percent positivity rate in the region, were increasing as of Friday.
Inslee said the decision to move the West and Puget Sound regions forward was based on the numbers. He said it will ultimately be determined by the residents of each region who should continue to mask up and social distance if they want to reopen sooner.
Deputy Secretary of Health Lacy Fehrenbach said there is concern that the virus could spread faster in reopening. It’s important for everyone to continue to work together, social distance and wear masks, she said.
“We too very much want to go forward, but it’s going to take all of us doing our part,” she said.
One of the big reasons for allowing some flexibility is the vaccine. Although only a small portion of the population is eligible so far, most of the deaths related to the virus are in the group that is being vaccinated right now, Inslee said.
Fehrenbach said while vaccines are a lifesaving tool, there is still more work for everyone to do.
“There’s a temptation to give up when you get close,” Inslee said, urging people to continue to work harder in the coming months to fight the virus.
Inslee also announced a change in the Department of Health’s timeline for evaluating regions’ metrics. Metrics will now be evaluated every two weeks instead of every week. New data will be released every other Friday, and if applicable, a region will move forward the following Monday.
Evaluating the metrics every two weeks is more realistic and will allow for better predictability of how a region is faring with the virus, Inslee said. If a region has one bad week, for example, it may still have the opportunity to move forward if the second week helps even out the average.
Inslee said he has not thought about what a Phase 3 might look like, or when it could be implemented in some regions, but “anything is possible” in the coming months.
Those in the hospitality industry appreciated the small step in allowing some regions to reopen but still had concerns that it wasn’t enough, especially as so much of the state is still closed.
Anthony Anton, of the Washington Hospitality Association, told reporters Thursday that he wants to see a more stable metric that wouldn’t allow for some businesses and restaurants to open now and have to close two weeks later if metrics change.
“At the end of the day, we know we can do this safely,” Anton said.
Renee Sunde, of the Washington Retail Association, called the move “an important step forward” but said she was concerned that there’s no further steps past Phase 2. The retail industry has been operating at 33% for some time now, but many people want to see a pathway to operating at 50% or higher.
Anton said he’s heard from a lot of restaurants and businesses in areas that won’t reopen next week and are frustrated. For some, there’s no hope in sight of when they might open, and the desperation is “hitting a high level.”
“It doesn’t have to be that way,” he said.
Sen. Mike Padden, R-Spokane Valley, said he appreciated that the new metrics might make it easier for areas to open up but said he was disappointed Spokane wouldn’t be one of them yet. Padden and other state Republicans have been trying to pass a bill in the Legislature that would automatically move the state to Phase 2. It failed a vote in the Senate on Wednesday.
Republicans have been critical of Inslee’s emergency orders, which they claim take away power from the Legislature.
“We all want safety, but I think we’ve had too much command and control,” Padden told the Spokesman-Review. “We should be listening to local officials.”
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig of Spokane praised Spokane and Washington for doing “a very good job” during the pandemic following mask mandates and social distance guidelines.
“Because of that, now we’re able to do a little bit of additional opening,” Billig said.
Mass vaccination efforts continueThe vaccination effort at the Spokane Veterans Memorial Arena inoculated 1,164 people on Wednesday, more than double what was initially planned for a single day.
The site had a total of 3,000 doses for appointments scheduled through Tuesday.
Kelley Charvet, chief administrative officer at CHAS Health, told reporters that the site anticipates receiving more vaccine doses on Monday, that they will have to use to ensure all 3,000 people with appointments get vaccinated.
They can also borrow vaccine doses from the health district if necessary. CHAS Health does not yet know how many doses they are receiving next week.
The Arena is only open to those with confirmed appointments made online, and people without appointments are being turned away. Charvet said she did not know how many of the extra people who were vaccinated had appointments scheduled later in the week and came early, or did not have appointments at all.
CHAS is asking people who think they made an appointment to double- check online.
Currently, Washington residents who live or work here and are health care workers, first responders or those 65 and older (or 50 and older in multigenerational households) are eligible to be vaccinated.
There are no appointments open at the Arena for next week yet, and CHAS plans to open the online portal for those appointments next week, likely on Monday.
CHAS changed the traffic flow at the Arena for the second day of vaccines, and CHAS closed its testing site at the Arena through Friday as they adjust space and traffic flow in the parking lots.
People with appointments who are driving to the Arena will be asked to park and walk up to the entrance, and there is a line outdoors, so people are encouraged to dress warm. Those arriving by public transportation can walk up to the front entrance.
Latest local numbersThe Spokane Regional Health District confirmed a spike in cases on Thursday, with 503 new cases.
Of the 33,975 cases confirmed in Spokane County thus far in the pandemic, an estimated 80% of those people have recovered.
There are 105 patients with COVID-19 being treated in local hospitals.
The district confirmed eight additional deaths as well on Thursday, bringing the county fatality total to 498.
Arielle Dreher and 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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