By Kari Bray / Snohomish Health District
On June 5, Snohomish County moved to Phase 2 of the statewide Safe Start plan for reopening businesses and activities during the COVID-19 pandemic.
For many, the first question was: What does Phase 2 mean? An earlier blog touched on that topic, and the governor’s website maintains a list of industry-specific business guidance. An online form also is available to submit questions. You can read more about the Safe Start plan overall on the governor’s website, as well.
However, there are some specific topics we want to highlight in this blog. Summer normally brings a series of events and activities, and we know those will look different this year. Examples of summer staples that have been canceled or must be modified to meet health and safety guidelines include festivals, weddings, youth sports, and yard sales.
Under Phase 2, gatherings are allowed with no more than five people outside of your household in a seven-day period. That means we’ve reached the point where a barbecue with the neighbors next door or a camping trip with a couple of your closest friends is OK, but the neighborhood get-togethers and community celebrations that draw larger numbers still are not allowed.
This has sparked another common question: When is Phase 3?
PART I: LOOKING TO PHASE 3
The third phase is the mark where, under the Safe Start plan, gatherings could resume with 50 or fewer people, as long as there are specific health and safety precautions in place. That would open up more events.
It also would open more businesses. At Phase 3, businesses not permitted in previous phases could reopen, except for nightclubs and events with more than 50 people. They still would need to modify operations. For example, theaters could reopen at limited capacity. Phase 3 would also allow other businesses to ease some of the current limitations. Restaurants could go from a cap of less than 50% capacity to less than 75%, with maximum group sizes at tables going from five to 10.
We do not have a firm date for Phase 3. Like our move to Phase 2, Snohomish County must meet criteria outlined by the state, submit an application, and get approved.
Our application for Phase 3 is expected to rely on many of the same metrics as the Phase 2 application. That includes rates of infection, hospital capacity, supply of personal protective equipment, testing capacity, contact tracing and disease investigation capabilities, and ability to isolate or quarantine people who cannot do so at home.
We are currently in a minimum three-week monitoring period between Phase 2 and Phase 3. Part of reopening safely is monitoring the metrics listed above to make sure we don’t expand activities too quickly or too broadly, which could lead to an increase in cases, strain on our medical system, and additional COVID-related deaths.
The earliest the county could apply for Phase 3 is June 26, but we can’t guarantee that we will be in a position to meet the criteria on that date. The County and Health District continue to review the metrics laid out by the state.
All of that is to say: we cannot give you a certain date for Phase 3. And we know that is not the answer people are hoping to hear.
What we can provide is information on how to help us get to Phase 3, and how to be ready to reopen or expand operations when we reach it.
Getting to Phase 3
This really involves holding the line. It is a continuation of the efforts that helped us reduce the spread of illness, preserve hospital capacity, and put in place health and safety measures for the long-term response.
What to do:
• Minimize close contact with others and keep group sizes for social gatherings small (five or fewer people from outside of your household in a seven-day period).
• If you have symptoms of COVID-19, self-quarantine and then contact your medical provider or visit one of the drive-thru testing sites to be tested as soon as possible.
• If you have a positive test or are a close contact to someone with a positive test, follow the Health District’s directions regarding staying home, and promptly answer all phone calls and texts coming from the Health District for the duration of your isolation or quarantine. This will not only help protect the people around you, it will help everyone move closer to the next phase in re-opening, and…it’s the law.
• Wash your hands frequently and thoroughly with soap and warm water. Pack hand sanitizer for use when you won’t be near soap and running water.
• Clean and sanitize at least daily in your workspace and at home. Pay particular attention to high-touch areas, like doorknobs, light switches, faucets and counters.
• Wear a cloth face cover when you are in public if you are indoors or if you are outdoors but cannot reliably maintain a six-foot distance from other people.
• When you go to a business, either as a worker or a customer, you will likely be asked to follow specific health and safety guidance for that venue. Please respect this guidance. Be patient. Business owners and employees are working hard to keep people healthy and continue operating.
How to be ready for Phase 3
The phased approach to reopening is county-by-county. That means there are some less-affected counties already in Phase 3 while we’re in Phase 2. In some ways, this is frustrating. In other ways, it is a benefit. Materials for Phase 3 are already available and businesses or organizations can begin referring to them now. This allows several weeks – at least – to get plans in place for reopening or expanding services.
In Phase 3, businesses will need a written safety plan to prevent the spread of COVID-19, per state requirements. A template is available to fill out or to guide them as they develop their own. While the plans are not intended to be submitted to the Health District or another agency for review or approval, they still must be available at the business and provided during any inspection by a regulatory agency—including the Health District. An example would be a restaurant showing their plan when a member of our Food Safety team does a routine health inspection. These plans can also serve as a guide for staff training.
The Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) also has workplace safety information, and plans cannot be any less strict than what is outlined by L&I. Businesses also must follow industry-specific guidance released by the state.
Now is also a good time to get signs or notices ready. These include required signs that strongly encourage people to wear a cloth face cover, reminders in restrooms to wash hands, and stickers or other markers on the floor in areas like check-out lines to help people know where to stand to maintain six feet of distance. Check our Posters for Download page for existing signs and new additions as we move through the phases.
PART II: SUMMER EVENTS AND ACTIVITIES
We want to preface this section with a reminder that specific guidance has changed throughout the COVID-19 response, and may continue to change as we move through the phases. An example is public swimming pools, which originally were not expected to be allowed at all until Phase 3, but recently the guidance was modified so staffed facilities can reopen at 25% capacity and small group (5 or fewer) classes in Phase 2.
Here are some resources that are helpful for staying informed:
• Check www.coronavirus.wa.gov often for updates
• Stay up-to-date on the guidance documents for your industry posted on the governor’s webpage
• Questions about a specific business or activity? The state has an online form to submit business or worker inquiries.
• That statewide call center for COVID-19 remains open. Call 1-800-525-0127 and press #. Or text the word “Coronavirus” to 211211.
Festivals and Events
Over the last couple of months, notices have come out from a number of large events – fairs, festivals, parades – that are canceled this year. While Phase 3 does allow for gatherings of up to 50 people, we don’t have a guarantee on when we’ll get to that phase. Also, many of the events we enjoy each summer attract much more than 50 people and/or would not be able to keep up with measures like sanitizing high-touch surfaces between uses and distancing people.
It’s important to keep plans flexible. If you know of an event that is scheduled for later in the summer, please keep in mind that there still isn’t a guarantee the event will be able to go on as planned. This is through no fault of the organizers, who have made difficult decisions to cancel, postpone or significantly modify events.
Some events are smaller in size or are able to modify their operations to meet health and safety standards. Graduations have been one example, where schools have organized drive-thru graduation ceremonies for seniors.
As more activities resume, keep your own health and safety in mind. If you have concerns that event organizers or operators are not following health and safety guidance, don’t go. If you attend an event and become concerned, leave. Even events that are planned well can’t account for every person attending. If a larger group than expected shows up, or if people aren’t keeping their distance and wearing cloth face covers, leaving may be the best step you can take to protect your health.
Weddings are milestone events and deeply important to the loved ones involved. They also are a significant industry in Snohomish County, and wedding venues along with related businesses like caterers, bakeries and florists have been impacted by the restrictions on gatherings.
There are a couple of pieces to consider for wedding planning this summer.
The Governor has released guidance for religious and faith-based organizations that apply during Phase 2 and include wedding ceremonies. A faith organization may hold outdoor services on the organization’s property with up to 100 individuals, or inside a place of worship with 25% of the building’s capacity or 50 people, whichever is fewer. This is allowable as long as they follow all of the requirements in the document, including spacing out people, screening employees, providing personal protective equipment as necessary, and cleaning/disinfecting.
However, not all weddings or wedding-related events are part of a religious or faith-based service. For gatherings like a wedding reception held at a private, non-religious venue, the event needs to follow gathering guidance for each phase. In our current phase, that’s no more than five people outside of your household. In Phase 3, that expands to gatherings of no more than 50. This means the realistic phase for reopening most wedding venues would be the third phase, though the size of the events would remain limited.
Like other businesses, wedding venues should review the safety plan template prior to Phase 3.
Youth and/or league sports
For those who have been looking forward to outdoor team sports this summer, there’s some good news. Some activity can resume, as of June 5. However, practices and games will look different for many sports.
First, youth sports leagues or other similar groups must have a written procedure for health and safety, a “return to play” plan, that is at least as strict as the statewide guidelines.
Professional sports are allowed to resume, but without spectators at our current phase.
Outdoor youth sports and adult recreational sports can resume practices, but must space out players so that there are no more than five people within the same area and close contact is avoided. In soccer, for instance, that might mean two or three groups of five spaced out at different corners of the field while they practice passing the ball. People should not gather on the sidelines during practice, and games are not yet allowed.
Once we reach Phase 3, games or matches may begin. However, crowds will be limited to no more than 50 people.
The fact that league sports can resume does not mean they have to. Some organizations may decide not to reopen activities yet.
We’ve received several questions about yard sales. At this point, they are not a Phase 2 activity. Remember that gatherings still are limited to no more than five people outside of your household per week, and a yard sale is a gathering rather than a business or industry.
Phase 3 is when yard sales may resume. Please keep in mind that the gathering size will be limited in Phase 3, which means that some of the larger neighborhood-wide or community-wide sales, where multiple households coordinate to host sales together, may not be an option, as those may draw larger crowds.
Although summer activities will be different this year, we encourage people to get outside, enjoy the summer weather (when we have it), and stay active. We also urge you to find ways to mark milestones, celebrate holidays, and socialize with your friends, family and neighbors. Just remember to do so safely.
We appreciate all of the effort and sacrifices people have made to help keep our community healthy. We also need your ongoing support to continue to limit the spread of COVID-19 and hopefully continue to progress through the Safe Start phases.
The Public Health Essentials! blog highlights the work of the Snohomish Health District and shares health-related information and tips.