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Indoor Dining Continues in Washington, But Inslee Urges People to ‘Take It Outside’

State officials are pleading with people to take precautions as COVID cases rise

A grayish table on an outdoor patio with a green plant in the center and various chairs scattered around
Indoor and outdoor dining are both allowed in Seattle, although it appears state officials would prefer people choose the latter.

It’s a confusing time right now in Washington state, mixed with hope and dread. COVID cases and hospitalizations are on the rise, but vaccinations are accelerating. All adults are eligible to receive the shot, but finding appointments is a challenge. Recently, it looked like many counties in the state would have to roll back restrictions in April, but then Gov. Jay Inslee changed the rules enough to keep all except three to remain open at 50 capacity. Now, even though indoor dining continues amid concerns over a possible fourth COVID wave, state officials are trying out a new slogan: “Take it outside.”

On Thursday, April 15, Inslee held a press conference in which he echoed warnings from the health department that COVID transmission was increasing at an alarming rate in recent weeks. Daily cases in Washington have risen more than 30 percent since February (from an average of 700 to consistently over 1,000). Though 32 percent of adults in the state are now fully vaccinated, Inslee urged caution, mainly by touting the benefits of fresh air. “Take whatever we’re going to do when we’re around other people and take it outside, whether it’s a coffee, or a chance to see an old friend, or whatever recreation we’re going to have,” Inslee said. He later added that doing so would help “keep your county open.”

King County remains in phase 3, which means Seattle restaurants and bars are allowed indoor dining at 50 percent capacity. To keep the status quo, COVID cases must remain below 200 per 100,000 people over the previous two-week period, or hospitalizations must be below 5 per 100,000 people over the previous week — and the county just barely met those requirements. The department of health will evaluate the data again in three weeks, but if the numbers keep trending in the current direction, Seattle restaurants may be put in a position to reinstate restrictions.

Inslee said he’s confident that if people heed the call to keep most activities outside, the state will avoid the need for any future rollbacks. But this push-pull of keeping certain activities going, such as indoor dining, while also telling people not to really do the things that they are technically allowed to do, seems to result in a mixed message (which is not just a problem in Washington). Further complicating matters are the presence of more contagious COVID variants in the state and the fact that the majority of residents still aren’t vaccinated. Given those conditions, there may be no perfectly calibrated way to move forward that would address all public health concerns, and it remains to be seen whether a more aggressive approach might be needed.

When asked whether it would have been wiser to roll the whole state back to a more restrictive phase, Inslee said that there was enough disparity among the counties that making a “one size fits all” decision didn’t make sense. He also defended the current “Healthy Washington” reopening plan that leaves open the possibility of counties going back and forth between phases as a “measured approach.” And he continued to emphasize that, if people do feel the need to gather with people outside their homes, the outdoors is the place to do it.

“We have faced this same situation we are in today in the state of Washington three times already, and we have acted,” Inslee said. “And because we acted as a state, we knocked down this virus three times. Now it’s time to knock it down a fourth occasion — so taking it outside, together with the vaccine, we think could be a knock-out punch for this COVID.”