On Thursday, May 13, Gov. Jay Inslee announced plans to lift most COVID-related business restrictions in Washington on June 30, which would include allowing restaurants to open at full capacity. He also said the transition could happen even sooner than that, if at least 70 percent of Washingtonians over the age of 16 get vaccinated. Right now, the percentage of vaccinated adults is about 57 percent (with 43.6 percent fully vaccinated).
This is major news for Seattle restaurants, which have dealt with the state’s constantly shifting guidelines over the past year. Currently, King County is in phase 3 of Washington’s reopening plan, which allows for 50 percent capacity indoors. But the specter of rolling back to a more restrictive phase has loomed over the past several weeks, as COVID cases and hospitalizations rose alarmingly in the area, before plateauing more recently.
On May 4, Inslee announced a two-week pause in determining whether counties would need to reduce indoor dining capacity based on COVID-related metrics. But, starting Tuesday, May 18, every county in the state will have the opportunity to be in phase 3, even the three counties that recently needed to roll back a phase, such as neighboring Pierce. All of Washington can maintain 50 percent capacity for most indoor activities until the state’s full reopening, which means the days of assessing case and hospitalization levels every few weeks appear to be over — although local governments are still empowered to make a call on more restrictive measures and react to potential outbreaks.
“This does not mean our state of emergency will end on June 30, because the extraordinary emergency that is created by this pandemic continues,” Inslee said. He noted that the one metric that would stall reopening would be if ICU capacity reached 90 percent capacity at any point, “but if we remain on this course of getting vaccines, we don’t believe that’s going to happen if we all step up to the plate.”
On that front, Washington officials hope they can motivate those who are still hesitant to get a vaccine. The biggest reason would be to contribute to an earlier reopening, but smaller incentives include allowing spectator events (such as sports) to have no limits on vaccinated attendees and creating partnerships with local businesses to give people free stuff. The Washington Liquor & Cannabis Board is working with wineries and breweries to possibly allow them to “buy a glass or a pint” for vaccinated guests, and beer discounts in Seattle at breweries have already begun.
During Thursday’s press conference, Inslee also said that Washington is adopting new guidelines from the Center of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that say vaccinated people don’t have to wear masks in most indoor settings, including restaurants. Businesses will retain to legal right to require customers and their employees to wear mask, but there will not be a requirement in the state to wear a mask if one is fully vaccinated.