Thursday marked the symbolic one-year anniversary of the COVID-19 pandemic, so maybe it was appropriate that Washington Gov. Jay Inslee delivered some good news to the state.
Inslee announced Washington has moved into Phase 3 of its “Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery” program, allowing for increased capacity at indoor and outdoor businesses and events – including sports.
“Because of the progress we’ve made by decreasing our case rates and hospitalizations, as well as our tremendous efforts to get more people vaccinated, our reopening plan is once again based on counties, not regions,” Inslee said during a news conference Thursday. “We are excited to take this step and we will keep evaluating our progress, and the impacts of these changes, to determine how and when we reopen further.”
Phase 3 will allow in-person spectators at events for the first time in a year. Spectators will be allowed to attend outdoor venues with permanent seating with capacity capped at 25%.
The announcement also means professional sports, including the Seattle Mariners and Spokane Indians, will be allowed to permit fans this season.
Expanded capacity for high school sports will go into effect Thursday. Social distancing and facial coverings will be required.
In Spokane, the news was met with joy – and tremendous relief.
“For us, it means welcoming people back to the stadium, and that’s a big deal,” Spokane Indians baseball club senior vice president Otto Klein said. “You know, we’re anxious and grateful just to see people, see fans and bring professional baseball back to the community.”
“My phone has been blowing up,” Greater Spokane League director Ken VanSickle said. “I can’t tell you how many texts we’ve had amongst the (athletic directors).”
VanSickle wasn’t sure this day would come this school year.
“I’m actually pleasantly surprised,” he said. “I felt like this was coming. We’ve been pushing hard from our end. Spokane Regional Health has been fantastic helping us.
“I think all the emails and letters the parents have sent to the (state Department of Health) and the governor have helped. I think the input from local school districts also helped. I’m surprised it happened this early, but thankful.”
Inslee also said indoor contact sports competitions will be permitted under Phase 3.
“This gives all the wrestlers and basketball athletes and their families excitement that they’re going to be able to compete,” Van Sickle said.
He said the main thing now is student-athletes, especially seniors, will be able to play in front of those who helped get them there.
“I’m just so happy for our athletes and their parents and their families,” Van Sickle said. “To be able to open up and have families and parents share those great memories with their kids – that’s what it’s all about and were excited that’s what’s going to happen.”
The league is still developing protocols for distribution of the limited tickets. VanSickle indicated priority will be with families, but he hopes they will be able to accommodate student groups.
“Obviously, we want to get as many students in there as we can, too,” he said. “Athletes want to compete in front of their peers, and peers want to cheer for their friends.
“We’ll have to figure out what the capacities are in our stadiums and make sure we can fill them up the best we can. But without a doubt, families are going to be able to come watch their kids.”
Larger venue events are capped at 25% occupancy or up to 9,000 people, whichever is less, and must follow spectator guidelines.
The announcement came without much warning, so some of the details about how fans can return to Avista Stadium and area football facilities and indoor courts still need to be ironed out.
“We’re working on that,” Klein said.
“We’re working diligently behind the scenes to see how we can bring people back in a safe manner. We’re confident we can do that and we’re going to have a plan that we can announce in the coming weeks on, you know for seating and everything else.”
Klein indicated the club would seek guidance on how the number of players and stadium workers might affect the capacity for fans.
“I think that’s gonna be a part of the equation,” he said. “It’s going to be taking in the number of ballplayers, taking our stadium staff, taking our front-office staff, what the seating capacity can be – all those things we’re going to work together to dictate how many people we can have.”
Effective March 22, the state will transition from a regional to a county-by-county evaluation for COVID metrics, with all counties starting in Phase 3. Counties will be evaluated every three weeks.
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