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Washington's smallest counties will lead way into next phase of reopening economy

Tom Banse
NW News Network
Customers flocked to the River Mile 38 brewpub in Cathlamet after it reopened its tasting room and patio in mid-May. Wahkiakum County is in the vanguard of Washington counties advancing through Safe Start reopening phases.

Washington's least populous counties will lead the way into the next phase of relaxing COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and social gatherings. This next phase allows for the resumption of team sports as well as for libraries, museums, gyms and movie theaters to at least partially reopen.

Nine rural counties are eligible to apply to the state Secretary of Health this week to move to the next stage in Gov. Jay Inslee's four-phase reopening plan. Lincoln, Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Columbia and Wahkiakum counties wasted no time and submitted the necessary paperwork and letters of support on Wednesday to advance from Phase 2 to Phase 3.

County commissioners in Garfield and Skamania counties took final votes on Wednesday to approve their Phase 3 applications for submission to the state shortly. Whitman County's Board of Commissioners has scheduled a meeting on Friday to review and likely approve its proposal to move forward.

All of these places have spent the required three weeks in Phase 2 without any rebound in coronavirus spread. Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said he would make an in-depth review of the submissions, which could take a few days.

"One of the things that we’ll be looking at on Phase 3 applicants is what’s happened in the last three weeks in their communities as more businesses have opened up," Wiesman said during a media teleconference Tuesday.

Skamania County Deputy Health Director Dr. Steven Krager told his county commissioners Wednesday that the Columbia River Gorge county easily meets the criteria to advance.

"The local hospital continues to have adequate capacity. We have easily accessible testing. We have enough PPE (personal protective equipment)," Dr Krager said. "We haven't had any outbreaks in the community, which is great news."

Credit Washington State Governors Office

Moving up to Phase 3 in Washington state means gatherings of up to 50 people are OK, compared to a limit of no more than five friends from outside your household while at Phase 2. Libraries and museums can reopen. Swimming pools, gyms and movie theaters can reopen at 50% capacity. Restaurants bump up to 75% capacity for dine-in service and the bar areas in restaurants and taverns can partially reopen.

Wiesman said a new request he made of the leading edge applicants was to share any lessons they learned while opening up in Phase 2, details that might help other counties as they advance to the next level.

"We're trying to get some real time lessons learned," Wiesman said.

Map credit to Parker Miles Blohm, KNKX

While the small, rural counties are set to move to Phase 3, a similar number of larger counties remain at the most restrictive Phase 1, including a swath of central Washington which experienced significant COVID-19 outbreaks recently at various food processing plants. The state's most populous urban counties around Seattle submitted plans to Wiesman this week to move out of Phase 1, which would allow hair and nail salons, nonessential retail and restaurants to reopen with limitations.

Over the past month, Wiesman and Inslee have gradually loosened the criteria for easing the pandemic shutdown. The latest adjustments in late May to move fully to a county-by-county reopening process introduced a threshold for advancement of fewer than 25 COVID cases per 100,000 residents over the prior 14 days. Washington's Department of Health said it reserves the right to move counties backwards one step if a major outbreak occurs after loosening restrictions, or if COVID-19 testing lags, or hospital capacity and supplies become strained.

Meanwhile in Salem on Wednesday, Gov. Kate Brown described at a press conference how the majority of Oregon counties could enter into the next phase of reopening as soon as this Friday. Oregon is following a slightly different process and phase numbering system than its neighbor to the north.

Brown said 28 of Oregon's 36 counties have submitted plans to move from Phase 1 to Phase 2. Under Phase 2, gatherings of up to 50 people may take place indoors and outdoor gatherings of up to 100 people will be permitted. Youth sports, pools, movie theaters and bowling alleys can resume operations as long as certain disinfection procedures and capacity limits are followed.

No matter what phase a county is in anywhere in the Pacific Northwest, the old standby rules of washing your hands frequently, maintaining six feet of distance from strangers and staying home when sick still apply.

"We're still not back to life as normal," Dr. Krager said during Wednesday's Skamania County meeting. "I still recommend face masks if you're indoors somewhere and it is hard to maintain distance."

Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.