On Thursday, February 25, Gov. Jay Inslee announced a significant change to the “Healthy Washington” reopening roadmap. State health officials will apply a “weeks-long” pause on moving any region backwards to phase 1, meaning that all of Washington remains locked in phase 2, with indoor dining allowed at 25 percent for the foreseeable future. There were no details on future phases, but Inslee said he would engage in “stakeholders” on a path forward and reveal the plan sometime in the next few weeks.
Up until this point, staying in phase 2 was no guarantee. Each of eight regions advanced to the indoor dining phase by meeting three out of four of the following metrics: a 10 percent decrease in COVID cases over the previous 14 days; a 10 percent decrease in hospital admission rates; ICU occupancy below 90 percent; and overall COVID test positivity below 10 percent. Seattle has been in phase 2 since February 1, along with the rest of the Puget Sound region. Originally, to remain there, regions still had to show declining or flat trends in COVID metrics, with data assessed on a biweekly basis. But that’s no longer the case.
Inslee cited the steady decline of COVID cases in Washington and an accelerating vaccine effort among the reasons for the new adjustment, which should give businesses a little more certainty. Seattle restaurants won’t have to check the department of health dashboards every other Friday to see if the Puget Sound region is on the verge of another indoor dining shutdown, which could always result in more layoffs and wasted food with short notice. The continuing roller coaster of restrictions over the past year has already taken a significant toll, and a little bit more stability should be welcome.
But the pause brings up legitimate concerns about what may happen if there’s another spike in novel coronavirus cases. While the decreasing trends are encouraging, health officials have warned about the presence of dangerous new COVID variants that are more contagious and potentially more deadly (King County has detected evidence of both the U.K. and South African variants in the region). In the past, Inslee has said in the past that the reliance on scientific metrics to move forward or backward in phases provided a “fail safe” should there be a significant increase in COVID transmission and hospitalizations. Now that fail safe is gone, at least for now.
On the flipside is a business-focused contingent in the state, including groups such as the Washington Hospitality Association, that is pushing to get restaurants reopened beyond 25 percent soon. But Inslee was not ready to reveal details on what future phases of the “Stay Healthy” plan might look like on Thursday, saying there’s not enough information on the new variants, vaccine availability, and other factors yet to make final decisions. He urged Washingtonians to keep up the current precautions and stay tuned.