On Thursday, March 11, Gov. Jay Inslee announced details of the next phase in the state’s reopening plan, one that includes allowing restaurants and bars to increase indoor capacity from 25 percent to 50 percent, starting March 22.
To this point, Washington has been paused in phase 2 of the reopening plan for weeks. But all counties in the state will soon enter a newly formulated phase 3, with more economic activity allowed. In addition to loosening restrictions on indoor dining, sports venues will be allowed to reopen (Mariners can welcome fans to T-Mobile Park on Opening Day).
After moving to phase 3, state health officials will evaluate individual counties — rather than regions — every three weeks on a couple of key metrics: COVID cases must stay below 200 per 100,000 people over the previous two-week period, and hospitalizations must be below 5 per 100,000 people over the previous week. If the case count and hospitalizations are too high, counties would have to go back to phase 2 and reinstitute previous dining restrictions. If at any point ICU capacity reaches 90 percent, counties would have to move back to phase 1.
Local officials hope there won’t be a need to move backward in the reopening plan, though. As Inslee noted, the state has made progress in driving COVID case counts down in 2021 and increasing vaccinations, with more appointments becoming available around the state. On Saturday, March 13, Seattle’s Lumen Field will open as a mass vaccination clinic, and the city says the site will eventually be able to inoculate 22,000 people per day.
But restaurant workers are still not included in the state’s vaccination plan, and it’s unclear when they’ll be next in line. Inslee recently announced a new, accelerated timeline for the COVID-19 inoculation effort. Starting March 17, eligibility will open to a wider swath of the population, including those who work in the agriculture industry and at grocery stores.
Restaurant workers may not be able to receive the vaccine for some time, though, a source of frustration for those in the industry — for good reason. As restaurants reopen in a greater capacity, cooks and wait staff will continue to work in enclosed spaces with diners taking their masks off to eat, posing a significant risk to those employees. Meanwhile, health officials continue to warn of more contagious new variants and the possibility of a fourth COVID wave in the state.
Cities such as New York and Los Angeles have already made restaurant workers eligible to receive COVID vaccines, but Seattle hasn’t deviated from the state’s plan yet, and it doesn’t appear that it will do so anytime soon.