Washington state leaders are expressing hesitancy about opening the door to the final phase of the governor's four-phase reopening plan. By the end of this week, eight rural counties will have spent the minimum three weeks in Phase 3 and can then theoretically apply to lift most remaining coronavirus restrictions.
However, state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said he and Gov. Jay Inslee are not yet ready to entertain such a move.
"We are very concerned about thinking about any large gatherings or opening up things that really encourage people across the state to travel," Wiesman said during a media briefing Tuesday.
In the county-by-county reopening process, Phase 4 resembles life getting back close to normal. Restrictions go away on travel, the size of public gatherings and large sporting events. Nightclubs and concert venues can open. Bars and gyms can operate at full capacity and unrestricted customer service at government offices and in-person schooling can resume.
Social distancing guidelines and a new statewide face covering requirement would remain.
Wiesman said he has been very clear with county officials in the vanguard of reopening that there is presently no timeline for moving any place into Phase 4. Wiesman said this remains under active discussion among himself, Inslee and the governor's policy team.
"It is safer to still limit our interactions out in the public," Wiesman said. "This virus has not gone away."
The administrator of Northeast Tri County Health District, Matt Schanz, said he shares some of the state Health Secretary's concerns about making a big jump to near-normal business and social life. The three counties Schanz serves -- Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille -- could have been eligible on Friday to apply to Wiesman to move into Phase 4.
"We don't want to make decisions that would be putting our citizens in danger by inviting mass gatherings," Schanz said, especially given the surging coronavirus activity in neighboring Spokane County.
But Schanz said there is interest in his territory in taking a smaller step forward, for which there is currently no clear pathway laid out by the state Department of Health. The rural northeast corner of the state has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic to date.
"What we have been talking about is whether there can be an intermediate step between Phase 3 and 4," Schanz said in an interview Wednesday from Colville.
Schanz said organizers of community events such as upcoming Fourth of July celebrations and the traditional county fairs in Ferry and Pend Oreille counties are holding out hope that some planned events can proceed, but they need clear guidance soon.
The list of counties that could have been eligible by the end of this week to seek state approval to move to Phase 4 included Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Columbia, Garfield, Lincoln and Whitman in eastern Washington and Wahkiakum in southwest Washington.
Garfield County in southeastern Washington has not recorded a single COVID-19 case since the pandemic began. Some of the other small counties can tally their total cases on one hand, including Lincoln (2), Ferry (1), Pend Oreille (3) and Wahkiakum (4).
After a spate of positive tests in the past two weeks, Columbia and Whitman counties are now falling short of several key targets for testing and COVID-19 prevalence that the state measures for advancement.
Map credit to Parker Miles Blohm, KNKX
Elsewhere in the state, some county health officers on their own accord have paused their jurisdictions' progression through the reopening phases. Spokane County Health Officer Bob Lutz is resisting pressure to begin the application process for Phase 3 because of a surge in local cases. Similarly in Grant County, a spike in cases led the county health officer to say a move to Phase 3 would be "unlikely" in June, as reported by the Columbia Basin Herald.
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.
With the addition of Thurston County on Wednesday, 17 counties are now in Phase 3. Another 17 counties are in Phase 2, although a bunch of those have applications pending to move up a step. Three counties -- Yakima, Benton and Franklin -- are stuck in the first phase due to uncontrolled community spread of the coronavirus. Two other hard-hit counties -- Chelan and Douglas -- are holding in a modified Phase 1.5, showing that it is possible to create an intermediate step such as the Northeast Tri County Health District wants to explore at a more advanced level.