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Washington Gov. Inslee issues new COVID-19 restrictions for restaurants, bars, social gatherings

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee (Office of the Governor/Flickr)

Restaurants and bars will close for inside service, stores will have strict limits on the number of shoppers and many other places where people gather will be closed under emergency rules issued Sunday by Gov. Jay Inslee.

With the number of cases doubling in two weeks and hospitals starting to fill up with critically ill patients, Sunday marked “the most dangerous public health day in over 100 years,” Inslee said at the start of a virtual news conference.

“A pandemic is raging in our state,” Inslee said. “Left unchecked, it will assuredly result in grossly overburdened hospitals and morgues and keep people from obtaining routine but necessary medical treatment for non-COVID conditions.

“Left unchecked, our economic devastation will be prolonged, and, most importantly, we will see untold deaths. We will not allow this to happen.”

The restrictions will be in place by midweek and will remain so until at least Dec. 14, which will give health experts time to see if they are reversing the course of the virus. “This is not forever. This is only for now,” Inslee said.

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In some respects, they fall short of the “Stay Home, Stay Safe” restrictions put in place this spring. All K-12, colleges and child care centers can remain open under current rules, which are set by local health authorities.

The manufacturing and construction industries can continue to work, although Inslee warned at one point that compliance with masking and distancing requirements in construction is lagging, and restrictions could be imposed if that doesn’t change.

The restrictions Inslee announced to address what he called a third wave of COVID-19 infections are far-reaching as far as people’s ability to interact with family and friends:

  • Indoor social gatherings with people from outside a household — defined as people living in the same domicile — are prohibited.
  • Outdoor social gatherings should be limited to five people outside of a household.
  • Restaurants and bars are closed for indoor service, but can offer takeout and limited outdoor service, with no more than five customers at a table. Those restrictions go into place at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, while all others start at 12:01 a.m. Tuesday.
  • Fitness facilities and gyms, bowling centers, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums are closed for indoor services. They can offer limited services or have gatherings outdoors.
  • Real estate open houses are prohibited.
  • Wedding and funeral ceremonies are limited to no more than 30 people, and receptions for those ceremonies are prohibited.
  • In-store retail is limited to 25% indoor occupancy, and food court indoor seating is closed. That’s a slight reduction from the current occupancy level of 30%, Inslee said.
  • Religious services are limited to 25% of indoor occupancy or no more than 200 people, whichever is less, with no choir, band or ensemble performances in the services.
  • Long-term care facilities can only allow outdoor visits except for people providing essential support and end-of-life care.
  • Youth and adult sporting activities are limited to outdoors for team practices with the athletes required to wear masks.

To underscore the threat posed by the growing cases, Inslee was joined on the virtual press conference by health workers, including Clint Wallace, an intensive care unit nurse at Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center.

“We’ve been in this pandemic for eight months now, and we’re exhausted,” Wallace said, adding that having hospitals able to treat the pandemic is about more than the number of beds and ventilators. “It’s about having adequate staffing, and staff that have the energy to take care of these patients.”

An ICU nurse for 20 years, Wallace said the work is as busy as he’s ever seen it with staff using up their physical and emotional resources, their leave and vacation time. “We are needing everyone to put aside their political and financial motives and follow the directives of our health experts,” he said.

The impacts on business owners and their employees will be significant, Inslee said, but the state will provide some new monetary relief with $50 million in federal funds. That program should be in place in the coming weeks.

It is looking at other state assistance while urging Congress to enact more federal aid. But he conceded: “This is not going to ameliorate all of the economic suffering.”

People should patronize local stores and restaurants to help them out, Inslee and others said. They do not need to stock up on groceries and household supplies, as many did in March when the previous restrictions were announced.

“Our supply chain is strong,” Inslee said. “You don’t need to shop more often or in larger amounts.”

Although the federal government’s additional pandemic unemployment assistance has run out, the state’s unemployment system is available for benefits and remains solvent. That system was hit with massive delays in March when it experienced a 10-fold increase in new requests for benefits in a single week.

Inslee said, however, the surge shouldn’t be as great this time, and the additional staff the Employment Security Department has hired will be better able to handle the applications.

Enforcement for the new restrictions will be similar to actions taken for current masking and social distancing requirements. The state will encourage people to comply and have discussions with those who don’t before resorting to penalties. Bars or restaurants who don’t close indoor service could lose their liquor license, Inslee said.

In Spokane and other communities near Idaho, it’s possible that people could drive across the border to frequent restaurants, bars or other businesses not subject to the restrictions. Inslee said he hopes that Idaho reconsiders its decision against mandating masks and be “more aggressive and responsible” in fighting the virus to reduce the burden on the Spokane medical system.

“We’re not going to have any border patrols on this,” he said. “We have too many interrelationships with people crossing the border.”

King County Executive Dow Constantine said the state needs “aggressive and collective action” to provide more assistance to businesses and workers.

Inslee wouldn’t rule out calling a special session of the Legislature if a plan develops for a type of aid that needs legislative approval. He has so far resisted bringing lawmakers back to Olympia, despite calls from Republicans to do so.

“It is possible,” he said. “We don’t have any current plans to do so.”

Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said the new wave of COVID-19 cases is “very concerning” and Senate Republicans could be ready in one day for a special session, either in person or virtually.

“We need more voices at the table on these decisions and support legislative action,” Schoesler said in a news release shortly after the press conference. “There would likely be far more widespread support for safety measures if they weren’t being dictated to us by one man.”

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(c) 2020 The Spokesman-Review

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.