As coronavirus cases soar and hospital intensive care units fill up, Gov. Jay Inslee called Sunday the state’s “most dangerous public health day” in the past 100 years and issued new guidelines restricting gatherings at businesses and in homes.
Statewide and in Snohomish County, new cases of coronavirus infection reached grim heights over the past week. Public health officials reported 2,147 more COVID-19 cases and 12 deaths Friday. The state’s previous high mark was nearly 1,700 coronavirus cases in a day.
Inslee called the current surge the “third wave.”
“We are in a more dangerous position than we were in March when our first stay-at-home order was issued,” Inslee said.
Most of the rules announced Sunday are less strict than the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order in March and take effect Tuesday morning until Dec. 14.
One of the major changes takes aim at activities in homes and other private settings.
It bans gatherings with people from outside of one’s household unless those people have quarantined themselves for the prior two weeks or a week and get a negative coronavirus test within 48 hours of the get-together.
Another restriction is a familiar one. It prohibits indoor service at restaurants and bars after Tuesday night.
Other revised guidance includes: Grocery stores and retailers are limited to serving no more than 25% occupancy. They must close all indoor cafe and food court seating.
Religious services are capped at 25% occupancy or 200 people, whichever is lower. Funeral and wedding receptions are banned, and ceremonies for them are capped at 30 people.
Aquariums, bowling alleys, movie theaters, museums and zoos are closed. Drive-in movie theaters can operate under the current rules.
Fitness centers and gyms must halt indoor activities and are limited to five people for outdoor events.
Personal services, such as salons, are capped at 25% of maximum occupancy.
Four weeks, Inslee said, is needed to see if these steps produce a reduction in the rate of transmission. If it doesn’t work, state leaders will consider other measures.
“This increase simply is not sustainable,” State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy said.
Inslee said the state expects people to comply with the rules on home indoor gatherings and will not send state troopers door-to-door to enforce them.
The order does not affect public schools. Decisions about early childhood and kindergarten through 12th grade education will remain in the hands of local school boards.
Overall, the latest restrictions are less onerous than those imposed with the stay home order issued back in March.
However, as before, restaurant and bar owners and workers again must close indoor dining. That’s frustrated industry leaders who say there’s no evidence eateries are a source of the recent surge.
Inslee said science shows there is an increased risk of the virus spreading in indoor settings and the indoor dining ban in March helped drive down infections.
“One of the reasons we’re doing this is we know that this works,” he said.
To help the people in affected industries, the state is committing another $50 million in federal grants and loans to be distributed before the end of 2020. But that’s not enough money for the millions of people receiving unemployment benefits, and Inslee called on the public to pressure Congress to pass another coronavirus relief package.
Across the state, House and Senate Republican legislative leaders renewed their call Sunday for Inslee to convene a special session to address the worsening pandemic. It’s a request they’ve made often since March to no avail.
“We need more voices at the table on these decisions and support legislative action,” said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville. “There would likely be far more widespread support for safety measures if they weren’t being dictated to us by one man.”
In a statement, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said he worries about the economy and supported the governor’s actions because “the status quo is not working. …” He and Everett Mayor Cassie Franklin said they will advocate for more federal funding.
Beyond money, the recovery can be long for people who survive the illness.
On the other side of the personal protective equipment, healthcare workers are worn out after months treating patients, with and without COVID-19.
“We’ve been in this pandemic for eight months now and we are exhausted, we are tired,” said Clint Wallace, an intensive care unit nurse at Spokane’s Sacred Heart Medical Center COVID unit. “We’re close as a whole as healthcare workers to being burned out. We are pleading with our fellow Washingtonians and the world.”
Since late March, 10,000 Snohomish County residents have tested positive for COVID-19, including 247 who have died from the virus.
At Josephine Caring Community, a long-term care facility in Stanwood, 53 residents and 41 employees have contracted the disease since Oct. 26. The outbreak resulted in a couple of hospitalizations but no deaths, a Snohomish Health District spokesperson said Friday.
“I regret the restrictions being necessary, but we need to put on the brakes now to keep from overwhelming the already stressed health care system,” Snohomish Health District Health Officer Dr. Chris Spitters said in a statement. “These aren’t across the board shutdowns, but rather a strategic freeze within those sectors and situations that are linked to this recent surge in cases. We need everyone to join in and respect the restrictions to turn this around.”
The sudden crush of sick people has strained health care providers’ capacity, said Dr. George Diaz of Providence Regional Medical Center Everett. He is an infectious disease specialist overseeing the hospital’s response to the virus and was part of the team treating the country’s first COVID-19 patient.
“They accumulate and quickly take up our ICU beds,” Diaz said of people hospitalized with the new coronavirus.
The state’s actions are meant to stem the spread and keep Washington’s healthcare providers open to all patients.
“It is important for patients to continue to receive care at hospitals,” Diaz said.
Early Sunday, prior to the governor’s announcement, people flocked to stores with long lines seen forming outside Costco in Lynnwood. At the Target in Lynnwood, shoppers nearly cleared the paper supplies. But there’s no need to rush and stockpile anything, as grocery stores will remain open and the supply chain is intact, Inslee said.
The new rules aren’t made by the stores and people shouldn’t get upset with employees enforcing the public health rules, Washington Food Industry Association CEO Tammie Hetrick said in a news release.
“… Since the early days of the outbreak, grocery stores have complied with COVID regulations — masking up, sanitizing, and providing clean, safe shopping experiences,” Hetrick said. “Now, our members are asking for your continued patience as local grocers adjust to operating under these new rules during the busiest shopping season of the year.”
Similarly, Inslee asked people to continue taking personal responsibility by staying away from others not in their household.
“We need to make the decision to show our loved ones we love them,” he said.
Reporter Andrea Brown contributed to this story from Lynnwood.
Correction: An earlier version misidentified state Sen. Mark Schoesler’s position. He is the Senate Minority Leader.