Snohomish County seeks to enter second phase of reopening

The variance request will go to the state if approved by the Board of Health and the County Council.

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers. (Kevin Clark / Herald file)

EVERETT — Snohomish County is seeking Gov. Jay Inslee’s permission to enter the next stage of his reopening plan for the state amid the COVID-19 pandemic, officials said on Thursday.

Stephanie Wright, chairwoman of the Board of Health, will make the request to the board on Friday. If it’s OK’d by the board and the County Council, the request will go to the state.

“The Snohomish Health District and its partners have succeeded in preserving the health and safety of thousands in Snohomish County,” Wright, who is also a county council member, said in a statement. “It is now time for us to move into Phase II and re-start our economy.”

Inslee first issued a statewide stay-home order in late March. He extended it through May 31 earlier this month. At the time, the governor also laid out a plan for fully reopening the state in four phases.

Every county started in the first phase. Since then, the state has allowed 26 counties — ones with few new infections and adequate hospital resources — to advance to the second phase, ahead of counties where the virus is active and outbreaks are occurring.

County status as of May 28. (Washington State Department of Health)

County status as of May 28. (Washington State Department of Health)

To reach the next stage, the most critical and toughest standard is a requirement of fewer than 10 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week span. In Snohomish County, that’s 82 or fewer COVID-19 cases in 14 days — roughly six per day — according to the governor’s criteria. In that time span leading up to May 23, the county reported 240 new cases.

County officials believe they can meet that target if irregular outbreaks, such as those at assisted living facilities, are excluded from the total — as is allowed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“If you do that, we’re there,” said County Executive Dave Somers. “We think we can make a pretty good case that we’re extremely close, and it’s just time for us to be able to move forward.”

He hopes to see the county enter the second phase in the next week, he said.

Inslee has said the benchmarks could soon change to make it easier for counties like Snohomish, King and Pierce to enter the subsequent stage, where there is a greater degree of normalcy for families and businesses.

Restaurants would be allowed to operate at less than 50% capacity, and retailers could conduct in-store sales. Barbers and hair and nail salons could reopen. Real estate firms and pet groomers, too. Nannies and house cleaners could return to work.

Recreation opportunities would broaden. Zoos could open outdoor exhibits, and tennis players could play doubles and have tournaments without spectators.

To be cleared for the second phase, the county must show that it meets other criteria set by the state Department of Health.

Among those are 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 with symptoms and have the ability to rapidly trace contacts of those exposed to anyone who tests positive for the virus. State criteria call for at least 15 contact tracers per 100,000 population.

On Wednesday, the County Council approved spending millions of federal relief funds on protective gear, testing, contact tracing and the isolation and quarantine facility needed to meet some of those key criteria.

The county does have enough hospital beds to handle a 20% surge in admissions in case of an uptick in severe infections. And it is on track to meet the state’s demand to have a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment for staff, including N-95 respirators, surgical masks, face shields, gloves and gowns.

“We’re in good shape here,” Dr. Chris Spitters, the county’s top health officer, said last week regarding protective equipment.

However, in the same phone call with reporters last week, Spitters and Somers expressed doubts about whether the county would be ready to enter the second stage by June 1, largely because they expected the county would still have too many new cases, and not enough testing or contact tracing to meet guidelines at the time.

Snohomish County’s decision to pursue the request, known as a variance, came soon after the County Council allocated roughly $50 million in money from the federal CARES Act to various county departments on Wednesday, finishing off a funding package that the county executive requested last week. It’s expected to pay for everything from test kits to housing assistance for those hardest hit by the pandemic.

The council unanimously approved the funding measure, which builds on allocations that it previously made to three categories of services.

• About $24.1 million more, for a total of $55 million, will go toward “Public Health and Emergency Response.” Nearly $11 million will go to the Snohomish Health District. Overall, these funds will be spent on personal protective equipment, contact tracing and quarantine facility costs, as well as other necessities for reopening the county, according to a memo outlining the current spending plan. Some of the money would also help pay for food access for vulnerable communities, child care for essential worker families and operation of the county’s Emergency Coordination Center.

• An additional $10 million, for a total of $37 million, will fund “Economic Stabilization.” A large portion of the money will be used for a pair of small business grant programs that Snohomish County has established; one initiative focuses on industries such as retail and dining, while the other caters to aerospace, aviation and tenants at Paine Field. A third grant program will help local companies retrain and support their workforce, says another memo from Somers’ staff. The rest will be distributed, as recommended by the county’s Economic & Workforce Recovery Taskforce and related advisory groups, to programs and projects that foster economic recovery and resiliency.

• Another $15 million, for a total of $25 million, will pay for “Human, Social Services and Housing.” These line items include housing the homeless population and other vulnerable people during the crisis, establishing sanitation facilities and expanding resources available to survivors of domestic violence and those with behavioral health issues, according to a third memo from county staff. Some of the funds will pay for transitional housing and other services to support homeless people that the county has already paid to shelter in hotels and motels. The money will also be used to provide rental assistance and “rapid rehousing” to prevent people from becoming homeless.

Somers last week pitched his plan for spending all $143.5 million that the county is receiving from the $2 trillion federal economic relief package. Some $20.4 million remains in a reserve fund and must be used by the end of the year under the CARES Act.

The county is facing a budget shortfall of at least $26.9 million due to the pandemic, according to staff. The CARES funding is meant to offset unanticipated costs associated with the coronavirus.

“It’s not a question of if we’ll spend the reserves,” Somers told the council on Wednesday. “It’s a question of when and on what as priorities emerge.”

Joey Thompson and Jerry Cornfield contributed to this report.

Rachel Riley: 425-339-3465; Twitter: @rachel_m_riley.

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

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald Twitter: @dospueblos.

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