OLYMPIA, Wash. — Gov. Jay Inslee announced Friday he would extend Washington state’s stay-home order through May 31, but is seeking ways for some businesses to open before then, as he and state officials try to keep the new coronavirus from roaring back.
“If we stick together for a while longer, we don’t lose the gains we’ve already made,” Inslee said, acknowledging that restrictions on daily life have been challenging for many Washingtonians. “It’s so frustrating, we don’t want to do this twice.”
Inslee’s announcement comes as he and others try to chart a delicate course between a deadly virus that has now killed more than 60,000 Americans and a state economy decimated by the closing of society and commerce. And it comes as some states around the nation begin relaxing restrictions in an effort to curb economic harm.
While the governor has cited a slew of models and metrics that inform his decision-making, he has not given specific numbers needed for easing restrictions, and said he is looking for a combination of favorable numbers across the data.
In the plan issued Friday, Washington’s economy and social life would reopen in four phases, with some types of businesses ideally beginning to reopen in mid-May as the first phase.
Those businesses include retail stores able to offer curbside pickup. Automobile sales and car washes would reopen, with some restrictions. The governor also intends to allow drive-in spiritual services with one household per vehicle.
Beginning next week, additional outdoor activities will be allowed, Inslee said, but the ban on large gatherings would remain in place.
Inslee also announced that counties not hit hard by the virus could ask the state to begin reopening at a faster rate, provided they meet certain criteria. Ten counties currently meet preliminary criteria for that option, Inslee said: Columbia, Garfield, Jefferson, Lincoln, Pend Orielle, Skamania, Kittitas, Ferry, Grays Harbor & Wahkiakum.
The measures were not likely to sooth Republicans, who have grown increasingly frustrated with the coronavirus restrictions and concerned about the economic fallout.
In a statement, Senate Republican Minority Leader Mark Schoesler of Ritzville panned much of Inslee’s approach and contended that more businesses currently closed could operate responsibly with protective measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
“Republicans believe these businesses would follow the steps we’ve seen grocery stores and big-box stores and others take,” Schoesler said in prepared remarks, adding later: “if he wants to bet on success, why is he forcing so many employers to remain on a path that could easily end in their failure?
The governor’s stay-at-home order had been set to expire at the end of the day May 4. Put in place March 23, Inslee already had extended the restrictions once as state officials tried to dampen the outbreak of COVID-19 that has killed more than 800 Washingtonians and sickened thousands.
The second phase of Inslee’s plan would allow for the opening of hair salons and barbershops, and restaurants to 50% capacity and tables of no more than five people. New construction could begin, and some in-store retail purchases could resume. This phase would also allow for additional outdoor and social activities to resume, such as camping and gatherings of five or fewer people.
The third phase, among other things, would allow gatherings of 50 people or fewer, as well as a resumption of indoor sports activities and non-essential travel.
A fourth phase would allow the resumption of most public interactions, but social distancing measures would still be necessary.
Each phase for reopening will take at least three weeks, an amount of time long enough, the governor said, to let officials to see if the measures were working sufficiently.
The governor had earlier announced he wouldn’t yet lift the stay-home order, saying that public health data — such as the number of daily confirmed cases, and the transmission rate of the virus in King County — have not yet been favorable enough.
The governor Wednesday unveiled a website showing a slew of metrics that informed his decision-making about reopening broadly, including COVID-19 hospital admissions, fatalities from the disease, the percentage of people in the hospital with COVID-19 like symptoms and the percentage of people testing positive.
But Inslee did not give specific benchmarks. Instead, he said a combination of favorable data would be needed for allow for restrictions to relax.
Yet as pressure has grown, Inslee has opened up some activities in the past week. He has allowed some construction projects and medical procedures to resume, reopened some state lands for recreation and given the go-ahead for hunting and fishing.
The 10 largely rural counties that have not been as heavily affected by the outbreak will be allowed to apply for a variance with the Department of Health to move to the second phase and reopen businesses sooner than other counties.
The announcement comes as Washington in recent days has seen 150 to 300 daily confirmed new cases of COVID-19. Meanwhile, the state’s economy has taken a hard hit, as thousands of businesses closed under the stay-at-home order and more than one in five workers have filed for unemployment.
Demonstrators, among them Republican lawmakers, have rallied against the governor’s stay-at-home order. Protesters on Friday gathered at the state Capitol. One carried a sign that read: “FEAR IS THE REAL VIRUS.”
Shortly before Inslee’s announcement Friday, few hundred protesters held another rally on the Capitol steps, attended by at least two state Republican lawmakers, calling for Inslee to lift the coronavirus restrictions.
Speaking to the demonstrators, Republican state Rep. Jesse Young, of Gig Harbor, called for a special session of the Legislature so lawmakers could also weigh in.
“The governor should no longer be making decisions by himself,” Young told those gathered.
(Staff reporter Evan Bush contributed to this report.)
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