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Inslee visits Spokane as Washington state reopens for business with 69% of residents 16 and older vaccinated

UPDATED: Thu., July 1, 2021

By Arielle Dreher and Laurel Demkovich The Spokesman-Review

Citing the scheduling of a Death Cab for Cutie concert and the return of Hoopfest, Gov. Jay Inslee declared “Spokane is back” on Wednesday at the city’s U.S. Pavilion.

Flanked by emergency first responders and health care workers, Inslee said the state made it through its most difficult year thanks to the hard work of those on the frontlines, in addition to Washington residents’ acts of kindness throughout the last 15 months.

To celebrate Washington lifting most of its COVID-19 restrictions, Inslee attended three community celebrations across the state, starting in Tacoma and moving to the U.S. Pavilion. He will travel to Seattle on Thursday.

For the first time since March 2020, businesses in Washington could open at full capacity starting Wednesday, and social distancing is no longer required. In most settings, fully vaccinated people can ditch the masks.

Inslee announced in May that the state would open on June 30 or when 70% of residents 16 and older had at least one dose of a vaccine.

As of Tuesday, 69% of residents 16 and older have received their first dose.

“We obviously didn’t quite make it as of today, but I have a feeling if we continue to march along and remember that we’re still in the pandemic, very soon we’ll hit the 70% mark,” state Secretary of Health Dr. Umair Shah told reporters Wednesday.

While things may look almost normal, Inslee and the Department of Health still have some guidance for how to move forward.

All businesses that had to follow previous closures and guidance can now return to full capacity and operations. That means restaurants, bars, stores and theaters can open without physical distancing requirements.

Large indoor events with more than 10,000 participants can only operate at 75%. If there is vaccine verification and everyone entering is vaccinated, the space can operate at 100% capacity. No social distancing will be required, and current mask requirements must be met. The capacity limits will be reevaluated on July 31, according to the new reopening plan.

One thing that won’t change much: the state’s mask mandate.

Those who are not vaccinated will still have to wear a face mask in public indoor settings. Anyone who is fully vaccinated will not have to wear a face mask in most public indoor settings, although private businesses and local authorities can still set their own more restrictive requirements.

Employers must ensure unvaccinated employees wear a mask while working indoors, according to updated guidance from the state Department of Labor and Industries. Employers must verify vaccination status before lifting employee mask requirements.

Everyone will be required to wear masks in certain settings, including the following:

  • child care facilities, camps and schools
  • health care settings, including hospitals and long-term care facilities
  • correctional facilities
  • homeless shelters
  • public transportation and hubs, including airports, terminals or stations.

No one, regardless of vaccine status, is required to wear a mask outdoors, according to the updated mandate. People who are not fully vaccinated are still encouraged to wear face coverings in crowded outdoor settings, such as sporting events, fairs or concerts.

In Spokane County, Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez will align the county’s mask mandate with the statewide mask order, which still requires people who are unvaccinated to wear masks indoors. He said that he will continue to wear a mask, especially around his grandchildren or other family members who are not yet eligible to get vaccinated.

The governor and local leaders acknowledged that while reopening day is celebratory, with Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward even promising to throw a party, there is still work to be done to vaccinate more residents against COVID-19, especially in Eastern Washington.

Variants continue to pose a threat to the 45% of Washington residents who have yet to receive one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

 (Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)
(Molly Quinn / The Spokesman-Review)

The delta variant has gained some ground in the state, going from just 7% of the state’s detected variant cases in late May to 17% of variant cases sequenced from the first half of June. Acting State Health Officer Dr. Scott Lindquist said that while the rise in the number of delta variant cases detected could be an early signal, Washington continues to see declining COVID-19 case rates.

“We’re not seeing big clues of any of these variants becoming predominant in severity,” Lindquist said.

The alpha, gamma and delta variants are the three most dominant strains of COVID-19 circulating in Washington currently, and all three are more transmissible. The gamma variant is associated with higher rates of hospitalization and death. Lindquist said no variant so far is causing more breakthrough cases in people who are fully vaccinated than he would expect.

While 69% of the state population 16 and older has at least one dose, that vaccine coverage is not equal among counties.

For example, while King County has 77% of its population 12 and older vaccinated, Garfield County on the Oregon border in Eastern Washington has just 30.4% of its eligible population vaccinated.

Only 52.7% of Spokane County residents 12 and older have received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine.

Lindquist said he is most concerned about the spread of variants in communities with lower vaccination rates. He pleaded with people to get vaccinated to prevent any potential resurgence of the virus. Many people testing positive for the virus or being hospitalized for the virus are not vaccinated.

“These are cases that are completely preventable; we can save a lot of pain, suffering and death,” Lindquist said.

With the state reopening, Shah celebrated the progress and immense efforts of residents and health workers. Washington’s efforts did pay off, with the state ranking fifth lowest in the number of COVID-19 cases and seventh lowest nationwide in COVID deaths per 100,000 people, Shah said.

While reopening is cause for celebration, Shah would not say “never” to the possibility of reinstating a mask mandate.

“The more we increase the number of people across the state who have been vaccinated, the likelihood is less every single day that you have to go back to a previous phase in the pandemic, and let’s hope we don’t have to go back,” Shah said.

Here’s a look at local numbers:

The Spokane Regional Health District confirmed 24 new COVID-19 cases on Wednesday and no additional deaths.

There are 40 people hospitalized with the virus in Spokane.

The Panhandle Health District confirmed 12 new cases and no additional deaths on Wednesday.

There are 24 Panhandle residents hospitalized with the virus.

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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