State shifts to county-by-county reopening plan
— Created June 3, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
The Stay Home, Stay Healthy order for Washington state has officially expired and Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan to reopen Washington has now shifted to a county-by-county approach.
“Thanks to Washingtonians pulling together, we can transition fully to our county-by-county approach to safely reopen,” Inslee said. “If we remain diligent and committed to more effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we will continue to save lives and open up more businesses while protecting our friends and neighbors.”
The move, according to Inslee, gives local governments more flexibility and more control over dealing with the COVID-19 situation in their own counties. While there must still be a minimum of three weeks between the shift from one phase of the reopening plan to the next, it means some counties may be able to progress through the phases more rapidly, depending upon the level of infection and whether counties can meet all the health criteria necessary to move forward.
As of June 1, counties can apply to John Wiesman, secretary of the Washington State Department of Health, who may then approve a county’s request to move completely to the next phase or approve only certain activities in the next phase.
Island County moved to Phase II nearly two weeks ago, which means planning is already underway for the possible application to move to Phase III.
“We are already preparing for Phase III but cannot apply until we have been in Phase II a minimum of three weeks,” said Commissioner Janet St. Clair. “I will want to continue to monitor the data and assess risk as we move through each phase.”
“We will need to watch our metrics over the next couple weeks, and see how our community responds to Phase II,” agreed Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “I do appreciate the process Gov. Inslee has to allow counties to move forward, bringing back jobs and safely opening businesses, with caution.”
In his press conference last Friday, Gov. Inslee said the ability to let the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order expire is based on the fact there are new tools to be used in the fight against the “scourge” of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as testing, contact tracing, isolation of those who test positive and the use of face coverings to prevent transmission.
“I consider it really good news that we have now shown that facial coverings can be very effective at protecting the other person,” he said. “We are implementing new and effective guidance for workers to wear at a minimum, cloth facial coverings on the job. Employers will need provide coverings for employees. As well, we’re going to see signs asking us to wear face coverings. Please wear a face covering, you’re helping to protect folks.”
This new initiative takes effect Monday. Retailers are also required to post signs encouraging people wear masks. Local jurisdictions and businesses may set more stringent standards requiring everyone wear face masks.
So far only the city of Langley has issued orders requiring people wear masks in its downtown business district. Island County commissioners say the first opportunity they might have to discuss such a measure would be at the next county board of health meeting June 16.
“I believe that regulating masks would be challenging from an enforcement perspective,” St. Clair said. “It is my opinion that government is best first educating the public about risk and how to make responsible choices; then perhaps using incentives as a second step to encourage appropriate behavior, and that our last step in most circumstances should be regulatory. I would hope that peer pressure from our community to both protect our physical health and our economic well-being would enable us to let the public know we are all in this together. If we have businesses not complying with the State public health requirements in our variance application, that could put all businesses at risk of having our approval revoked, especially if our numbers of cases increase.”
There has also been no discussion yet at the City of Oak Harbor in terms of requiring people to wear masks. City offices are preparing to reopen (an exact date has not been set) and there have been several safety measures put in place to ensure a safe opening when the time comes. Plexiglass shields have been installed at counters, much like those now in most grocery stores, there are easily accessible hand sanitizing stations and access to certain areas of city hall will be limited, according to the city’s public information officer.
“I know Island County has already reopened and we are trying to work closely with Public Health to make sure we are having engaged conversations,” said Sabrina Combs. “We’re trying to make accommodations to keep people and staff safe. We’ve put up shields to protect people during transactions, we’ve marked a pathway to walk in city hall offices, there are stickers on the floor to help enforce physical distancing.
“Basically I am telling everyone to be prepared, to have a mask,” Combs continued. “Always have a mask with you, because even if you don’t need it at city hall, chances are you will need it elsewhere.”
As more and more restaurants and retailers reopen on Whidbey Island and around the state, Inslee encourages everyone to stay vigilant so Washington can continue to get back to business.
“This is something that the more we all do this, the faster we’re going to be able to get back to normal and open up all of our activities in the state,” he said. “I’m really happy we’ve got something we can do individually to pitch in here.”
At this time, the new mask guidance is not mandatory for customers, unless it is required by individual jurisdictions or retailers.
“We thought we would get greater compliance in this mechanism than an actual order,” Inslee said. “We hope they consider why this is a badge of honor and caring about their community and we hope this educational component will actually get us more people wearing masks, so we think it will be effective. We hope that’s the case.”
As a reminder, even though the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order has expired, vulnerable populations who remain at a higher risk of suffering complications from COVID-19 are still encouraged to stay at home and limit unnecessary interaction with other people. Go to islandcountywa.gov or coronavirus.wa.gov for the latest information.