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Restaurants in a Few Rural Eastern Washington Areas May Reopen Dining Rooms Soon

Gov. Jay Inslee said smaller counties were approved to move to “phase two” of his reopening plan faster than other parts of the state

A map of Washington State
Some small counties in Eastern Washington were approved to move to “phase two” of the state’s reopening plan.

On Friday afternoon, Gov. Jay Inslee issued an update to Washington’s four-phase plan to reopen the economy during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Though he emphasized that the state was still in a “precarious” situation with regard to the spread of COVID-19, five counties that applied for a special variance to his general plan were approved to move to phase two, which allows restaurants to reopen at 50 percent capacity, seating tables of no more than five people at a time. This follows Inslee’s announcement last week that the four phases could happen on different timelines for different parts of the state.

Counties that got the go-ahead are smaller ones in Eastern Washington that have had no new coronavirus cases in the past three weeks and have populations below 75,000: Columbia, Garfield, Lincoln, Ferry, and Pend Oreille. Inslee said their applications were approved for the special acceleration, but did not give further details on what date certain businesses in those area could reopen, since guidelines are still forthcoming. Three more counties have applications pending.

Seattle and all of King County will remain in phase one for the time being, with dining rooms closed, but some more retail shops are allowed to open for curbside pickup. It’s unclear exactly when restaurants would open back up on a wider level, but on the current trajectory, phase two for most of the state would likely begin around June 1, right after the current stay-at-home order expires. As Inlsee said, it would still all depend on continued downward trends in COVID-19 cases and increased testing capacity, as well as positive signs in the state’s risk assessment dashboard. To date, there have been 16,388 coronavirus cases in Washington, and 905 deaths.

The fact that certain counties are reopening could become a blueprint for the larger areas, however, as the governor said in Friday’s press conference. Up until now, there haven’t been many specific safety mandates on what restaurants would need to do to reopen dining rooms, besides the reduced capacity to maintain social distancing, even as chefs and restaurateurs anxiously await such guidelines. Inslee said early next week there could be more information coming regarding the plan’s next steps.

“Businesses can only reopen after the governor’s office provides industry-specific guidance and the business is able to comply with all health and safety requirements,” a spokesperson for the governor’s office tells Eater Seattle. “A county of the state may not move into a new phase before that guidance is available, meaning businesses must wait before resuming operations. We expect this to be ready soon.”