Inslee loosens health restrictions for Western Washington businesses

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Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday he is relaxing health restrictions in seven counties that will open bars and restaurants again for the first time in months.

Under Thursday’s changes, the aforementioned businesses can resume indoor dining at 25% capacity starting Monday in King, Pierce, Lewis, Pacific, Thurston, Grays Harbor, and Snohomish Counties.

The same applies for entertainment venues like theaters and bowling alleys, but bars that do not serve food will remain closed.

Going forward, the state’s health metric system will be reevaluated every two weeks rather than every week as it had before, Inslee said on Thursday during a press briefing.

Created late last year, “Healthy Washington” divides the state into eight separate regions which previously had to meet all of four benchmarks to progress between two phases of reopening.

Those benchmarks include a 14-day decline in new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 people, a 14-day decline in new COVID-19 hospitalizations per 100,000 people of 10% or more, a 7-day ICU occupancy of 90% or more, and a 7-day COVID-19 positivity rate of 10% or less.

As of Monday, counties will only have to three of those benchmarks.

“We are getting closer to finding our way out of this mess, but we aren’t there yet,” Inslee said. “We have sacrificed too much to let our frustrations get the best of us now when the finish line is in sight, however distant that may seem in our field of vision.”

Thursday’s news did not sit well with Anthony Anton, CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, who expressed concern the governor’s changes would not help curb the pandemic.

“Half our state’s population will now be under a completely different set of restrictions than the other half,” Anton said. “COVID doesn’t stop at county lines, and in the second year of a global pandemic, we know that drastic bimonthly shut-downs are not an effective way to control spread.”

Inslee’s announcement meets Democratic and Republican state lawmakers intent on moving all of Washington to Phase 2 half way.

On Wednesday night, Washington Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, credited the governor and Washingtonians for keeping the state’s case rates among the lowest in the country.

“It’s because we’re wearing masks, and we’re following the social distancing guidelines, because our governor has done a good job making decisions,” Billig said. “But because of that, now we’re able to do a little additional opening.

Washington Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, and state Sen. Jeff Wilson, R-Longview, said they appreciated Inslee’s decision, but urged him to loosen restrictions further.

“While we are encouraged by the possibility that the governor will reopen more of Washington’s businesses, we need to use science to safely open businesses immediately,” the two said in a statement.

Since February, Washington has seen 291,701 and 4,211 deaths to date from the pandemic, the state Department of Health reports.

Health officials fear that number could shoot up all too quickly if a new COVID-19 strain discovered in Washington this month proves more infectious.

The CDC’s COVID Data Tracker showed Thursday Washington has vaccinated some 468,000 people or about 6% of its population with at least one dose since vaccinations began in mid-December. About 1% of Washingtonians have received both doses.

Washington’s health metrics will be reevaluated again on February 15.

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