Washington Governor Jay Inslee and the state Health Secretary are hitting the pause button on the county-by-county reopening process in response to the worsening coronavirus pandemic. Inslee announced that for at least the next two weeks all counties in Washington state will stay in whatever reopening phase they are currently in -- with a couple of exceptions.
During a Thursday afternoon media briefing in Olympia, Inslee also said he would expand a "No mask, no service" rule statewide. Currently, it just applies at businesses in hard-hit Yakima County.
"First, we’re doing this because of the extremely troublesome spike in the number of cases we are experiencing across the state of Washington," Inslee said, speaking through a honey bee-print face mask. "It is a reasonable expectation for businesses to enforce this law because it protects the people that they have some responsibility to -- certainly their customers when they are shopping in their stores and importantly their own employees."
Under the new rule, beginning next Tuesday Washington businesses will have to refuse service to people who don’t have their face covered.
Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the two week halt on processing county applications to advance through reopening will give time for the mandatory mask requirement to make a difference.
"What this really does is it gives us a chance to pause, take a look at what is happening, make sure we fully understand where the numbers are going, which we know right now are not in the direction we want them to go," Wiesman said.
In the short term, the freeze affects about half a dozen counties that have pending applications to let businesses operate at higher capacity and to allow larger social gatherings. Some of those counties have the virus well under control according to the state's online COVID-19 data dashboard, such as San Juan, Klickitat and Jefferson.
San Juan County's Board of Health and County Council voted more than a week ago to seek Wiesman's approval to move from Phase 2 to Phase 3 in the Inslee administration's four-phase reopening plan.
"I'm really sorry for all of the businesses that were hoping to open up more," said San Juan County Council Chair Rick Hughes, with particular reference to restaurants and lodgings that are currently limited to operating at 50% of capacity.
Hughes said a lot of island businessowners were looking for a boost from the Fourth of July holiday to make up for earlier pandemic losses. But then he gave a nod to many constituents who were uneasy watching the current COVID surge on the mainland.
"Maybe it's the right thing to do at this time," Hughes said with an audible sigh on the phone from Orcas Island. "I don't want people who were exposed to the virus to come here."
Map graphic by Parker Miles Blohm, KNKX
Inslee and Wiesman carved out an exception from the pause in reopening for three hard-hit counties in central Washington. Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties have been stuck at Phase 1, the strictest phase where only essential businesses can operate, since late March.
"I have heard from local officials of these three counties that residents have simply been going to other counties to get their services," Inslee said. "That is a concern because we don't want people spreading the virus from one county to another."
So, Inslee and Wiesman said they are prepared to move Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties into a more relaxed version of Phase 1 with assent of local officials in the next few days. The modified rules would allow more construction and manufacturing to resume, along with limited outdoor dining, nonessential retail and dog grooming.
"This may seem a little counterintuitive, but it is a big part of our strategy," the Democratic governor said. "We think allowing a small amount of additional activity to occur locally – under stringent safety precautions including making sure everybody is wearing a mask – is going to aid our efforts. It is going to reduce the number of infections that occur through people crossing county lines."
On Thursday, the state recorded 716 new cases of COVID-19 -- the highest daily total since the start of the pandemic -- and three additional deaths.
This story has been updated.