OLYMPIA — On Friday, Gov. Jay Inslee announced the state has more than doubled its economic aid for people and businesses affected by the pandemic.
The $135 million recovery package uses leftover CARES Act money to help businesses pay for expenses like payroll and works with people to cover their rent and utilities. The aid is in response to a slate of restrictions Inslee enacted Wednesday which temporarily prohibits indoor dining at restaurants, and closes gyms, bowling alleys, movie theaters and indoor activities at museums, aquariums and zoos.
During a Friday news conference, he again called on Washingtonians to hunker down, and avoid social gatherings of all kinds, including Thanksgiving dinners, as COVID-19 infections rise quickly across Washington, including in Snohomish County.
“We have to understand that the house is on fire right now,” Inslee said. “The virus is raging, when you are facing that kind of fire, you have to take some actions.”
Locally, case counts are shattering previous highs, while hospitalizations and deaths are also on the rise.
As of Friday, 53 COVID patients were in county hospitals, according to the Snohomish Health District. And cases are rising in long-term care homes.
The governor warned that if the situation doesn’t improve, he could extend the current restrictions — which are set to expire on Dec. 14.
“We’re going to have a giant spike in December if we all enjoy a turkey dinner the way we historically do,” Inslee said. “That’s just too dangerous this year.”
But there’s reason for hope, Inslee said.
Multiple pharmaceutical companies have reported promising results for vaccine trials, although it will take months for one to be widely available.
“The goal line is in sight, and we ought to get there with as many team members as we can,” Inslee said.
The recovery package includes $70 million in grants for restaurants, gyms and other businesses impacted by the pandemic, in addition to another $30 million in loans. It also contains $20 million for rent assistance to tenants and landlords. The remaining $15 million will help with utility payments for low-income Washingtonians.
The original aid plan, announced Sunday, was for $50 million.
Grants will be focused on businesses hardest hit by the pandemic, including restaurants, gyms and music venues, state commerce director Lisa Brown said during Friday’s news conference.
“We know that the uncertainty and the hardship that has been caused by the pandemic and public health measures have put thousands of business owners and their employees in very challenging times,” she said. “Probably the most challenging times of our lives.”
An application portal for business owners could be ready as early as next week.
In addition to the state’s plan, Inslee called on the White House and Congress to pass a second stimulus bill, so state and local governments can continue providing grants to businesses and increased unemployment benefits, among other programs.
“We are nearing a cliff of support,” he said. “The pandemic is accelerating, the federal assistance is going away, and the more time that is wasted, the more people that are going to suffer lasting impacts.”
The governor first announced the latest restrictions on businesses during a televised news conference early Sunday.
But that decision drew the ire of businesses owners, the state’s hospitality association and several Democratic lawmakers.
They say restaurants aren’t the cause for the surge, and shuttering indoor dining will cost upward of 100,000 jobs statewide.
“The best relief for our operators and employees is to let us get back to work,” Washington Hospitality Association President Anthony Anton said in a written statement. “We want to work with the governor to get our operators open again now, even if at reduced capacity, so we can earn enough to keep our workers employed during the holidays and hopefully help the business survive.”
But two people from different households getting lunch together at a restaurant is just as dangerous as them doing it in someone’s home, the governor said.
“No matter how good of a job a restaurateur can do, you can’t eat with a mask on,” he said.
Since June, health experts have said social gatherings where people don’t wear masks are the leading driver of COVID infections, locally and statewide.
Inslee’s latest order also prohibits those gatherings.
In Snohomish County, more than a dozen restaurants have had COVID outbreaks, data shows. But cases haven’t spread from employees to patrons, Dr. Chris Spitters, the county health officer has said.