EVERETT — Gov. Jay Inslee smoothed the path Friday for Snohomish County to reopen stores, restaurants, beauty salons and other businesses shuttered for weeks under an emergency order aimed at blunting the spread of coronavirus.
That order, issued in March, will not be extended when it expires Sunday. The state is pivoting its recovery strategy to let counties reopen at their own pace if they are equipped to test, treat and contain outbreaks of coronavirus in their communities.
There will be restrictions and a new statewide requirement for workers to wear masks and to encourage customers to do so, as well.
Starting Monday, any county can apply to the secretary of health to advance through the state’s four phases of reopening as long as they’ve been in their current phase for at least three weeks. An application will be reviewed against a new set of metrics covering the rates of new infections, the number of tests conducted and the capacity of local hospitals.
“Now this does not mean, obviously, that we will return to normal,” Inslee said. “It means that three months to the day that we declared a state of emergency, we’re successfully moving forward.”
Inslee’s announcement at a news conference in Olympia is good news for Snohomish County, where, hours earlier, the county council and the Board of Health approved an application to the state to move into the second phase of reopening amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
County officials planned to review it in light of Friday’s announcement and submit it Monday morning. Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said he expects a decision “fairly quickly” once it is turned in.
In a statement, Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said Inslee’s announcement “offers new hope for Everett and our greater community and brings us closer to reopening more sectors of our economy.”
On Friday, the cumulative count of cases in Washington stood at 21,071, with 1,111 deaths since the outbreak began in January. The Snohomish Health District reported 3,342 cumulative cases and 148 deaths.
Inslee issued the statewide stay-home order March 23. It shut down non-essential businesses, closed places of worship and prohibited large gatherings. Earlier this month, he extended it through May 31 and laid out a plan for fully reopening the state in four phases.
He also created a path for counties with few new infections and adequate hospital resources to graduate from the first phase. So far, two thirds of Washington counties — 26 — have been allowed to do so.
In the second phase, restaurants can operate up to 50% capacity, and retailers can conduct in-store sales. Barbershops, beauty salons and pet groomers can reopen. Nannies, house cleaners and real-estate firms can return to work, too.
The new rules released Friday by the state Department of Health will make it easier for Snohomish County, which otherwise might not have met the state’s standard.
Previously, counties applying to move to Phase 2 had to have fewer than 10 new cases of the virus per 100,000 residents over a two-week span.
The new benchmark is 25 cases per 100,000 residents in that time frame — about 205 cases every two weeks for Snohomish County.
As of Friday, the county was on pace to have about 160 new cases in the 14-day period that ends next week, the county’s top health officer, Dr. Chris Spitters, said during a briefing with reporters Friday.
Other standards for the second phase include specific targets for hospital bed capacity and personal protective equipment like masks, gowns and gloves. The county must also be able to make testing available and accessible to everyone in the county who shows symptoms, and to have the ability to rapidly trace contacts of those exposed to anyone who tests positive.
Under the new rules, the state secretary of health can move a county back to an earlier phase if large outbreaks of the virus occur.
“At the end of the day, the success of this is really going to rely on our residents doing the smart thing, the right thing,” Somers said. “These establishments need customers.”
The county’s four hospitals have said that they meet the criteria to proceed to the second phase, including having a 20% surge capacity to accommodate an uptick in severe infections and at least a 14-day supply of protective gear.
There are more than a dozen sites that conduct tests in Snohomish County, with a total capacity to complete an estimated 5,790 to 6,560 tests per week, according to the county’s application.
To meet one state requirement, the county must have the equivalent of 123 full-time employees available to investigate cases and trace contacts. The health district currently has about 30 and is recruiting and training some 65 more, according to the application. Plus, the Department of Health has agreed to provide another 60 people, putting the county well over the required 123.
As the state and county move to reopen, you’ll also see more people wearing masks, Inslee said.
Starting June 8, all workers statewide must wear a face covering, unless they have no in-person interactions.
“You might think of it as a badge of commitment to keep each other safe,” Inslee said. “The more we all do this, the faster we’re going to be able to get back to normal and reopen all of our activities across our state.”
As the state and county prepare to enter Phase 2, both are considering orders for all residents to wear face coverings in public, not just workers.
Earlier this week, Thurston County’s top medical officer issued a mandatory mask order.
In Snohomish County, Spitters said he is not opposed to a statewide mask mandate.
“The most important thing, I think, is that we all use face coverings when out in public,” Spitters said. “I think that that really does need to be a new social norm for the period of time that we’re under the shadow of COVID-19.”
He and Executive Somers have been considering such an order for months, he said. But local leaders have previously expressed concerns about enforcing the mandate.
“There’s a good part of the population that doesn’t want to be told what to do, but also, our businesses need some ability to say ‘no’ if someone comes in without a mask,” Somers said.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.
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