Inslee bans events of 250 or more, to stifle coronavirus

Snohomish County issued even tighter restrictions. Meanwhile, the county saw two new COVID-19 deaths.

SEATTLE — Public gatherings of over 250 people are banned for the rest of the month in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Wednesday in an extraordinary new effort to stifle the spread of COVID-19.

Leaders of King and Snohomish counties plan to order even stricter prohibitions, to include smaller events of 250 people or fewer.

Inslee’s proclamation affects nearly 4 million residents of the Seattle metro area. It does not force schools, businesses or markets to close. However, schools in the region have been warned to prepare for potential mandatory closures.

“This is not just your ordinary flu,” Inslee said Wednesday morning at a news conference in Seattle. “This demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.”

Inslee’s order prohibits “social, spiritual and recreational activities including, but not limited to, community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based, or sporting events; parades; concerts; festivals; conventions; fundraisers; and similar activities.”

Under state law, the governor may issue an order banning activities he “reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain the life, health, property or the public peace.” Violating the order is a gross misdemeanor.

Washington has documented at least 366 infections.

Projections suggest that inaction could allow the number to top 25,000 by early April, said Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County.

“And that curve unfortunately continues to go up,” Inslee said, “so that it probably continues to double every week or so, so by mid-May we could be looking at over 60,000 people infected with the consequence of fatalities associated with this.”

In the two Washington counties most affected by the virus, King and Snohomish, all gatherings are restricted “unless they meet public health guidelines to ensure social distancing, adequate sanitation, regular health checks of employees, and other measures designed to prevent the virus from being transmitted,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said.

Under the stricter rules, people at gatherings cannot be within 6 feet of each other unless “absolutely necessary.” There must be easy access to hand sanitizer, and organizers are required to advertise that people over age 60, or those with health issues, should not to attend.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said the King County order would be mirrored in his jurisdiction. The plan will be handled by the Snohomish Health District, according to the county executive’s office.

“The decision announced today, and (those) yet to be announced, are serious,” Somers said. “We know they have effects on people’s lives. We know they are going to disrupt lives.”

The Tulalip Tribes, a sovereign nation, announced the governor’s order will be emulated on the reservation.

On Wednesday, the tribes reported its first confirmed case of the virus and said it would post updates on the Tulalip News website and through Storm Text, a subscription text service.

Inslee’s mandate is in place through March, but it’s very likely it will be extended, the governor said. The order may also expand beyond the borders of the three counties.

“It is clear that our state needs a more vigorous and more comprehensive and more aggressive position if we are going to slow the spread of this epidemic,” Inslee said.

The 250-person limit was chosen after consulting with scientists and local leaders, he said.

“There is no magic number written in the stone tablets,” he said.

The new rules do not apply to airports, the governor said. For large companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Boeing, the governor urged employers to have workers telecommute whenever possible. Across the country, some have already told employees to stay home and work remotely, such as Google.

Seattle Mariners baseball, Seattle Sounders soccer and Everett Silvertips hockey games will be affected by the governor’s order. So will graduation ceremonies, festivals, concerts, worship services, weddings, funerals — and everyday life.

“We do not want to see people shoulder to shoulder in bars from now on, that is just totally unacceptable,” Inslee said. “We thought over 250 it would be impossible to exercise those reasonable measures.”

The state is ready to enforce the order if it’s violated, Inslee said. But he doesn’t anticipate any issues with compliance.

“The penalties are, you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it, and I’m serious about this,” Inslee said.

The governor hinted that the U.S. National Guard could be called in “as necessary,” and “on an emergency basis if our hospital system becomes stretched, possibly.”

State and federal dollars are on the way, Inslee said. The Legislature is working on a bill to add $100 million to the budget to respond to the emergency.

In Washington D.C., President Donald Trump signed a bill last week to bring $11.3 million to local governments in the state.

The virus has origins in Wuhan, China. The first confirmed case in the United States was a man from the Everett area who had traveled there. He began to show symptoms only days after his return flight.

That patient, in his 30s, was treated at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. He recovered.

Weeks later, one of the nation’s first deaths from the virus was reported in Snohomish County, and amid exponential growth in the COVID-19 outbreak, a second death in the county was reported early Wednesday. And the Snohomish Health District confirmed a third death in the afternoon.

As of Wednesday, King County had 234 confirmed cases. Snohomish County reported 75 confirmed cases, with 82 more suspected. Pierce County had 14 confirmed cases.

Twenty-two deaths have been linked to a Kirkland nursing home, and authorities said the virus spread to at least 10 long-term care facilities in the Seattle area.

Snohomish Health District officials said Tuesday that three residents of Josephine Caring Community in Stanwood had tested positive.

Inslee on Tuesday outlined a list of requirements for care homes, aimed at stopping the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation. Under Inslee’s new rules, residents will be limited to one visitor a day, and they must host them in their rooms. All visitors must sign in and follow precautionary measures like social distancing, and employees must be screened for symptoms at the start of each shift, he said.

Duchin, the health officer in King County, likened the fallout from the virus to a major earthquake.

“We expect a large-scale outbreak in weeks,” he said. “This is going to be a very difficult time.”

The governor pointed to the situations in Italy and China as possibilities for what the U.S. could have in store.

In Italy, the death toll from the virus is nearing 1,000 people, according to multiple reports.

“I spoke to our ambassador in Italy about what was going on in Italy right now,” Inslee said, “and I have to tell you, looking at that vision and thinking that could be us is very, very disturbing to me, and that’s one of the reasons we are taking action today.”

Acting now will relieve the strain on Washington state’s hospital system, Constantine said.

State ferries based in all three impacted counties continued to run Wednesday, though an advisory asked passengers to practice good hygiene for the sake of tollbooth staff, and to maintain a personal space bubble of 6 feet on board. Ferry passengers are encouraged to stay in their cars, if possible.

State ferry ridership has dipped about 20 percent in the past week, according to the state Department of Transportation.

Ferry officials have “plans ready to go to limited service to match demand or to limit the number of passengers on a single sailing if that’s what health authorities recommend,” WSDOT spokeswoman Diane Rhodes said in an email.

Inslee’s ban is expected to impact the Mariners’ first seven games, against the Texas Rangers (March 26 to 29) and Minnesota Twins (March 30 to April 1), plus home games for the MLS Seattle Sounders, the XFL Seattle Dragons and the junior hockey Silvertips and Seattle Thunderbirds.

The Everett hockey team plans to play a home game March 20 to an empty Angel of the Winds Arena.

The restrictions did not include Spokane, where NCAA Tournament basketball games are scheduled to take place next week. However, the NCAA announced it would restrict fans from the entire tournament.

Santa Clara County in California, home to Silicon Valley, on Monday announced a ban on gatherings over 1,000 people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published new guidelines for how to best prevent the spread of COVID-19 over the next month in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties. Among the recommendations were ensuring a 30-day supply of all prescribed medicines; avoiding events with more than 10 people; and for employers, expanding sick leave policies, eliminating staff meetings and encouraging staff to work from home.

Just before the Seattle press conference, the World Health Organization declared the worldwide outbreak a pandemic.

Inslee said Washington is preparing for many more cases than have been reported, potentially tens of thousands, based on estimates of the spread of the disease.

Some churches stay open but limit numbers

The White House called for community and religious groups to postpone gatherings of any size or else to stream them on video, in an announcement Wednesday.

The 10:30 a.m. Sunday service at Gold Creek’s Mill Creek campus often draws 1,000 attendees, pastor Dan Kellogg said Wednesday. Two other morning services each draw about another 500. This weekend, the church is keeping its doors open, but limiting services to 250 people.

“We felt like it was important to stay open for even the limited number of 250, because some people just need to get out and need a healthy place to gather,” Kellogg said.

Meanwhile, demand has skyrocketed at the Mill Creek Community Food Bank, which operates at the Gold Creek campus. About 150 more families are requesting food this week than last week.

The Chabad Jewish Center of Snohomish County canceled Purim celebrations this week. The next big celebration is Passover in April.

Rabbi Berel Paltiel said they’re asking families to make the traditional feast marking the beginning of Passover, Seder, at home rather than in large groups. The center is offering “DIY” Seder packages to help.

Rev. Rachel Taber-Hamilton from Trinity Episcopal Church in Everett is offering “phone prayers” to those in self-quarantine. Last week church leadership asked congregants to stay home if they are over 60, have health conditions or feel sick.

That cut weekend service attendance in half, Taber-Hamilton said, and left them well below the 250-person ban. For now, they’re still holding service this Sunday, with plans to move to video streaming as soon as they have the technology.

The church building is still open to the community, as well as the support groups that meet there, so long as they don’t serve food and they follow sanitation protocol.

“It’s exactly times like these,” Taber-Hamilton said, “when churches need to be accessible and responsive and responsible.”

Herald reporters Andrea Brown, Zachariah Bryan and Rachel Riley contributed, along with the Associated Press.

Joey Thompson: 425-339-3449; jthompson@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @byjoeythompson.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; chutton@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @snocaleb.

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