County pause for phased reopening in Washington may remain if cases climb


OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Washington’s secretary of health said Wednesday if cases of coronavirus continue to increase, it was unlikely that a current statewide pause for counties looking to advance from their current stage of reopening will be lifted at the end of the initial two-week timeframe.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the pause last week for the state’s 39 counties, which are in various stages of a four-stage economic reopening plan.

“The rates are going up in most counties in the state and that is not where we want to be,” Health Secretary John Weisman said during a weekly state update on COVID-19. “And if they continue to go up, moving out of this pause of a phase really doesn’t seem very likely.”

As of Wednesday, nearly 38,000 people have tested positive for the virus and at least 1,394 have died.

Weisman said that not only will a continuation of daily increases keep counties paused where they are, officials will have to consider whether they need to roll back reopening in counties by whole phases, or make other changes. He encouraged residents to continue to wear masks, keep physically distanced from others, and avoid large crowds.

“This is serious,” he said. “People just need to look at other states about how things are just exploding. We can prevent that. It takes all of us to do that.”

On Tuesday, an enhanced statewide order took effect that requires businesses to refuse service to customers who don’t wear facial coverings. That order builds on previous mask requirements issued last month.

“This is what we can do to keep our businesses open and continue to open more,” Inslee said this week.

Exemptions exist for people who are deaf or have hearing loss, those who have medical conditions that preclude them from wearing a mask and children age 5 and younger. And people engaged in recreation alone or with household members and those eating out at restaurants don’t have to wear masks as long as they are properly distanced from others.

Seventeen counties are in Phase 3 of reopening, which allows gyms and movie theaters to operate at half capacity, restaurants to increase capacity to 75% and for group gatherings of up to 50 people, including sports activities. Under an order issues last week, while standalone bars in counties in this phase are still allowed to stay open and provide table service, bar seating is no longer permitted.

Seventeen counties are currently in Phase 2, which allows restaurants and taverns to reopen at half capacity with limited table sizes, hair and nail salons and barber shops to resume business, and retail stores to reopen for in-store purchases at 30% capacity. It also allows additional outdoor recreation and gatherings with no more than five people outside of a person’s household.

Five counties — Benton, Chelan, Douglas, Franklin and Yakima — are currently the only counties in a modified Phase 1 of reopening, which allows some additional business activity beyond essential businesses.