OLYMPIA — Washington’s economy can fully reopen June 30 — and possibly sooner if enough people are vaccinated, Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday.
Inslee said a decline in COVID-19 activity across the state enabled him to set a date for a resumption of normal public life, when restaurants, bars, retail stores, movie theaters, bowling alleys, gyms and the rest of the private sector can operate at full indoor capacity.
Until then, a 50% capacity on indoor activities in public spaces remains in place, the governor said at a news conference.
“This is a huge step forward,” Inslee said. “It is a new chapter in our fight against COVID. It is a recognition that we are moving to a strategy based on vaccination as opposed to restrictions in our personal behavior.”
And in the other big news Thursday, Inslee said the state would immediately adopt new federal mask-wearing guidance for fully vaccinated people, allowing them to stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings. A person is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after receiving a second dose of the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines, or two days after the Johnson & Johnson vaccine.
Businesses can still require employees and customers to wear masks regardless of their vaccination status, Inslee said. Face coverings must still be worn in hospitals, schools and on public transportation, he said.
And the state’s mask mandate continues to apply to those who are not vaccinated, according to a spokesman for the governor.
Inslee, who is fully vaccinated, conducted the news conference without a mask for the first time in months. He called this development a “heck of a benefit” for those getting a dose of protection against the potentially deadly coronavirus, which has claimed the lives of over 5,600 Washingtonians, and for those who’ve detested the state’s mask mandate.
“People who have been annoyed with this mask — it is a really good reason to get vaccinated. That shot is a ticket to freedom from masks,” he said.
The new guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still calls for unvaccinated citizens to wear masks, but it clears the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues by easing the need for mask use or social distancing by those who are fully vaccinated.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on Thursday. “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things you have stopped doing because of the pandemic.” Masks are still required for everyone traveling on public transportation, including buses, trains, airports and stations.
Unvaccinated people, meanwhile, “remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death or of spreading the disease to others,” Walensky said, and they should continue to wear masks.
The state could reopen earlier than June 30. The governor is prepared to act sooner if at least 70% of Washingtonians 16 and older have initiated vaccinations before that date. Currently, 57% of those 16 and older have had at least one dose, and 43.7% are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health. In Snohomish County, the figures are 57.5% with one dose and 42.5% fully vaccinated.
The date could get pushed back, on the other hand, should hospitalizations surge and intensive care unit beds fill. If statewide ICU capacity reaches 90% at any point, there could be a re-imposition of restrictions to save lives, Inslee said.
The pressure to fully reopen has been increasing nationwide. Washington was one of six states that had not fully reopened or had not announced criteria or a date to reopen, according to The New York Times.
“It’s been a long, hard year of battling the pandemic, and now we can see a bright light at the end of the tunnel,” Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in a statement. “Our community is ready to put the pandemic behind us, and the tool is in everyone’s hand: get vaccinated.”
The Washington Hospitality Association, which has pressed Inslee for months to set a reopening date, contends the state could reach the 70% mark by June 15 if it averages 23,000 first doses a day. It would be May 31 if the average reached 40,000.
“Today, we are excited to see a clear path forward,” association president Anthony Anton said in a statement. “This is a moment we’ve all been working toward for 14 months, as we’ve stayed home, worn masks, and physically distanced from our friends and loved ones. Now, we can all rally around a common goal: If we work together, we could reopen within a few weeks.”
Inslee chose June 30 because trends suggest it won’t be until then that the state reaches the desired vaccination threshold. He said he hopes people will get vaccinated faster so the state can reopen sooner.
To that end, the state is looking to beef up incentives for people to get their doses.
Effective immediately, the state is easing restrictions on activities involving fully vaccinated people.
There will be new guidance on attendance limits for spectator events, such as indoor and outdoor sports. Theoretically, the Seattle Mariners could fill their stadium — if every fan is fully vaccinated. Potentially, Inslee said, teams could limit sections for unvaccinated fans, in which rules on social distancing and masks would be enforced, in order to host larger crowds.
Weddings, funerals, live performances and conferences will be allowed to have full capacity if all attendees are vaccinated. Small cruise ships with fewer than 250 passengers can sail if the crew and 95% of passengers are vaccinated.
Meanwhile, vaccination promotions are in the offing.
The state Department of Commerce is working with the Association of Washington Business to provide vaccinated residents with gift cards to local businesses. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board is considering a request from wineries and breweries to allow them to “buy a glass or a pint” for vaccinated customers. Other ideas, including free joints, savings bonds and even scholarships, could be on the horizon, the governor acknowledged.
Even with reopening, the state of emergency will not end June 30, Inslee said.
“The virus is not finished with us,” he said. “We don’t want to see this pandemic come back which it could with the variants.”
Last week, seven counties, including Snohomish, were on the cusp of falling back to Phase 2 restrictions because case rates and hospitalizations exceeded state guidelines for remaining in Phase 3.
But Inslee intervened with a two-week pause on rolling back counties, citing a possible plateau in COVID-19 case rates.
He announced that starting Tuesday the entire state would again be in Phase 3. That means next week three counties — Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman — will be elevated from Phase 2, in which they have been mired for much of the past month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Reporter Jerry Cornfield: email@example.com; @dospueblos.