On Wednesday, Reopening Day, take a seat anywhere you like

As the governor lifts restrictions, health officials caution that the pandemic is not over.

EVERETT — Bar-goers today are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and diners can sit at restaurant tables that have long been vacant to reduce capacity — more signs that pre-pandemic life is returning.

Home to the nation’s first known case of coronavirus and the first fatality, Washington has lifted most remaining restrictions imposed on the private sector and public life, measures intended to blunt the spread of the deadly disease.

As of 12:01 a.m., restaurants, bars, retail stores, supermarkets, movie theaters, gyms, stadiums — pretty much all commercial enterprises — were able to operate at full capacity for the first time since mid-March 2020.

Gov. Jay Inslee ordered their closure 15 months ago to protect the public health and safety. Weeks later, he ended the order and replaced it with caps on how many people could frequent commercial establishments and how many could attend activities from church services and funerals to sporting events and concerts.

“It hasn’t been easy, but I’m proud of how Washingtonians came together, persevered and sacrificed to fight this virus, and now we’re finally in a place that is safe enough to end this chapter,” Inslee said in a statement Tuesday.

“Even though Wednesday marks a new stage in our continued efforts to defeat this pandemic, we still have work to do,” he said. “Continued success depends on everyone getting vaccinated and encouraging any loved one who has not yet received this lifesaving vaccine to do so, and quickly.”

Inslee announced last month that June 30 would be the date for reopening. But he also said he would lift the restrictions sooner if 70% of Washingtonians 16 and older initiated vaccinations before that date. That rate was 68.8% late Monday.

“To be able to open gives us a little hope we can begin again,” said Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin.

The city has been the epicenter of disease activity in Snohomish County since January 2020, when a man in his 30s was hospitalized at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett with the nation’s first known case of coronavirus. To date, the city has had roughly 10,200 cases of infections, and, through May, 157 residents had died from the disease.

“We have been in the thick of it. The toll has been heavy,” Franklin said. “But the last few weeks we’ve seen the city slowly come back to life. It’s good.”

Also gone Wednesday are state requirements for social distancing. And when it comes to wearing masks, the state is stepping back and letting businesses and public entities set their own rules. However, unvaccinated employees are still required to wear masks in most settings.

“Today is a celebratory day,” Anthony Anton, president of the state hospitality association, told reporters Tuesday.

Starting at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, bars had the option of returning to their previous closing time of 2 a.m. And customers can once again saddle up on bar stools, which was disallowed during the pandemic.

But Anton is asking patrons to be patient. Many restaurants and bars are having a hard time recruiting staff, many of whom fled to other industries during COVID.

“We are still trying to find our workforce,” he said. “Please show grace to the workers who are there.”

Franklin said she’s heard from business owners that getting back to full speed won’t occur overnight.

“You’re not going to see ‘woo-hoo, we’re reopened,’” she said. “We’re going to see a gradual reopening because it takes time to get back up and running. It is very exciting.”

Inslee plans to mark the occasion of the state’s reopening Wednesday by attending events in Tacoma and Spokane. On Thursday, he intends to raise a flag emblazoned with “Washington Ready” above the Space Needle in Seattle. He also plans to drop by Pike Place Market.

With reopening comes a return of many in-person activities long-paused by cities, counties and the state.

In Olympia, the state Capitol will reopen to the public Thursday after being closed since March 2020. Tours will start again soon. Closure of the building forced the Legislature to conduct its 2021 session remotely.

And those rallies on the steps could be returning, too. The Department of Enterprise Services has begun considering requests for permits for outdoor events.

In Everett, city employees will no longer be required to wear a mask at work starting Thursday if they attest to having been vaccinated. And public counters will be open for those who walk in or have an appointment, Franklin said.

“You’ll see our smiling faces again,” the mayor said. “And they’ll be able to do their work mask-free.”

While life is going to look and feel a lot like normal, public health experts warn the pandemic is far from over.

“We have come a long way and sacrificed a lot to make it to this point,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said during a Tuesday media briefing. “While we may feel done with COVID, COVID isn’t done with us. We honestly don’t know what the future holds. Be smart, get vaccinated.”

As of Tuesday, there had been 40,179 confirmed infections in the county, including 610 deaths, according to the Snohomish Health District and the state Department of Health.

Returning to pre-pandemic life will be more difficult for some than others, experts say.

“It’s important to recognize that there are some folks who are not ready to do that,” county Department of Emergency Management Director Jason Biermann said Tuesday. “Please be respectful of those people.”

Reporter Jerry Cornfield: jcornfield@heraldnet.com; @dospueblos

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

Timeline

Jan. 19, 2020: A Snohomish County man, in his 30s, becomes the first known case in the U.S. of a viral infection later identified as the new coronavirus. He is hospitalized at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett and is released two weeks later after making a full recovery. Health officials say the general risk to the public is low, but they also acknowledge they expect to see more cases.

Feb. 11: The virus gets a name — severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2, or SARS-CoV-2. The World Health Organization labels the disease it causes COVID-19.

Feb. 29: Gov. Jay Inslee declares a state of emergency after the first person in the U.S. dies of coronavirus at EvergreenHealth hospital in Kirkland.

March 2: A man in his 40s with underlying conditions dies as a result of COVID-19. It is the first fatality from the virus in Snohomish County.

March 13: Inslee orders closure of public and private schools statewide.

March 17: Inslee orders all bars and restaurants to close. No time frame is given as to how long restrictions will last.

March 23: Inslee issues a stay-home order forcing the shuttering of a wide swath of the private and public sector deemed to be non-essential services and businesses. The statewide order lasts two months.

June 8: Snohomish County partially reopens under Inslee’s phased reopening strategy. Over the ensuing year, the benchmarks required for reopening are readjusted multiple times in response to three distinct waves of infections. In Snohomish County, retailers, including restaurants and bars, have never been able to operate above 50% capacity.

Dec. 14: The first batch of COVID-19 vaccine manufactured by Pfizer arrives in Washington. Five days later, the first shots are administered at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett.

May 13, 2021: Inslee sets June 30 as the date for lifting restrictions and fully reopening. He also says he is prepared to act sooner if at least 70% of Washingtonians 16 and older have initiated vaccinations before that date.

June 4: The Snohomish Health District records the 600th death from COVID in the county.

June 30: Washington reopens. The vaccination rate was 68.2% — 4.2 million people — as of June 23.

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