OLYMPIA — Fans in the stands for Mariners and AquaSox baseball games. Diners filling restaurant booths. Farm workers and grocery store clerks getting in line for the COVID vaccine.
It will soon look a little more normal in Washington after Gov. Jay Inslee delivered what he called “a boatload of good news” Thursday.
Ending weeks of wondering, he introduced Phase 3 of his “Healthy Washington” reopening plan. The new phase permits restaurants, bowling alleys, movie theaters, fitness centers and other indoor business activities to operate at 50% capacity.
It also clears the way for 25% capacity at professional and youth sporting events held in outdoor facilities with permanent seats.
And it allows 50% occupancy — up to 400 people — for indoor or outdoor events such as weddings and concerts, as long as there is social distancing and mask use. That would apply to Everett Silvertips hockey games, as well.
Starting March 22, all of Washington will advance to Phase 3, but expanded spectator capacity for high school and youth sports will take effect four days earlier.
“The reason we can make this progress today is because we have been safe, we have been diligent,” Inslee said at a news conference. “If we do this, we ought to have tremendous confidence with having a good summer and a lot of joy in our state.”
Meanwhile, Inslee said that starting Wednesday everyone in Tier 2 of the state’s Phase 1B will be eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine.
That includes grocery store clerks, food processing workers, farm workers, corrections officers and other staff in congregate settings, as well as anyone 16 or older who is pregnant or has a disability that puts them at risk. He made the announcement shortly before President Joe Biden, in a national televised address, announced that every person in the country will be eligible for a vaccine May 1.
So far, about 18% of the state’s population has received at least one dose of a vaccine, including more than half of residents 65 and older. Statewide, 10% of people are fully vaccinated.
Ramped-up vaccinations, in addition to lowering case counts and hospitalizations, are giving the state confidence to reopen, Inslee said.
However, he called on Washingtonians to continue wearing masks and to limit social gatherings.
In shifting to Phase 3, the state is ending a regional approach to reopening and reverting to county-by-county evaluations. The state Department of Health will review each county’s metrics every three weeks, with the first update coming April 12.
To remain in Phase 3, counties will have to report fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 people over 14 days. And the rate of weekly hospitalizations must not exceed five per 100,000 people.
In Snohomish County, the rolling two-week case rate recently reached 84 new infections per 100,000 residents — the lowest it has been since October.
Meanwhile, hospitalizations and deaths due to the virus continued to drop.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said in a statement that moving to Phase 3 “is an acknowledgment that the hard work and sacrifice are showing results. “
“I urge everyone to keep your guard up, continue your physical distancing, and get vaccinated when you are eligible,” Somers said in a statement. “We are making progress, but we are still in a pandemic.”
Operators of Evergreen Speedway in Monroe reacted with a tweet, “Fans Are Back!” Under the guidelines, the race track, as an outdoor venue with seating, will welcome fans at the first race of the season on March 27.
Critics of the state’s pace of reopening applauded Thursday’s news.
“I commend the governor for realizing it was time to move our state forward to Phase 3,” said Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia. “Opening businesses to 50% capacity will put many people back to work and allow them to feed their families and pay their bills. Maybe this will give them hope for the future.”
Anthony Anton, president of the Washington Hospitality Association, said expanding dining capacity will benefit “both the health of our state and our industry. Since restaurants have been opened in our state, cases have continued to drop. This is a testament to our rigorous safety standards and practices, which are among the most strict in the nation.”
Inslee’s announcement came more than a month after Snohomish County, and a few others, entered Phase 2 of Healthy Washington. That allowed 25% capacity for indoor dining and the reintroduction of other business activity that had been paused in November, when the state’s third wave of COVID transmission was beginning to hit.
For sports, previous state Department of Health regulations limited the number of people at outdoor sporting events to 200. That included everyone at the event — players, coaches, officials, school staff, cheerleaders, band members, media and fans.
The Emerald Sound Conference, which includes Granite Falls and Sultan, has allowed home fans to attend games if the host school chooses. Per league policy, no visiting fans have been allowed.