OLYMPIA, WA — Washington Governor Jay Inslee has announced a new, phased reopening plan which will gradually allow select industries to go back to work.
The plan, called “Healthy Washington,” replaces the older four-phase Safe Start plan. Safe Start was announced early in the pandemic and used for months, but was scrapped in the fall, when a record-breaking surge in transmissions pushed state leaders to cancel the current phases in favor of new, stricter statewide regulations.
Now that Washington has finally begun to see improvement battling the winter surge, leaders say it’s time to consider greater reopenings.
“We’re seeing some signs that disease growth has slowed for COVID-19,” said Dr. Umair Shah, Washington’s new secretary of health. “In fact, it has even leveled off in many communities across the state.”
As the governor noted at his conference Tuesday, it will be a few days at least before any of these new changes materialize.
“What we announce today will not be resulting in big, significant reopenings today, but it is a plan so we can do that tomorrow when these conditions exist to allow us to move forward,” Inslee said.
Some parts of the plan are also still under development — Inslee confirmed Tuesday that only the first and second phases of the plan had been finalized — but here is what we know about the program and its phases so far:
Reopenings on the horizon
The first changes will begin when all of Washington enters Phase 1 of the Healthy Washington plan on Monday, Jan. 11. At that point, Washington will allow live entertainment and select fitness programs to resume, though both will be severely restricted. While the exact limitations have not been released, the governor mentioned that live shows would be limited to ticketing groups of 10 or fewer.
When an area does enter Phase 2, that comes with a host of benefits, including:
Restaurants may reopen indoor dining at 25 percent capacity
Indoor fitness centers may reopen at 25 percent capacity
Sporting competitions may resume, though with limited audiences
Weddings and funerals will be allowed to have larger gatherings than currently permitted.
How regions move forward — or backwards
According to the governor, for a region to move ahead to Phase 2, it will need to meet four metrics:
A 10 percent decline in COVID-19 case rates over the past two weeks
A 10 percent decrease in COVID-19 hospital admission over the past two weeks
An ICU occupancy under 90 percent
Test positivity of less than 10 percent
Unlike the Safe Start plan, Healthy Washington also allows regions to be downgraded back into earlier phases if transmission begins to rise again: any county that fails three of those four metrics will be pushed back into the previous phase.
Note that the trending metrics can only be failed if case counts or hospitalizations go up. The county does not need to see that 10 percent decrease every two weeks, but unless those rates decline or stay stable, those metrics will count as failed.
Also unlike Safe Start, there will be no application process for regions hoping to move to the next phase. Early in the pandemic, counties had to submit applications to the state Department of Health for approval to move to the next Safe Start phase. The approval process was thorough, but could also be slow, delaying reopenings by days over even weeks. Under Healthy Washington, regions will move ahead automatically once they meet all four criteria.
Top state health officials say these two changes will allow the state to react to severe fluctuations in transmission, while hopefully also providing more stability for businesses.
“The flexibility to stay in [Phase] 2, when not meeting a single one of the four metrics, and the flexibility to allow for flat case and hospitalization rates are intended to create more stability in the system, especially early on when a region moves forward and there is an increase in mobility” said Lacy Fehrenbach, the state’s deputy secretary for COVID-19 response.
Phases will change by region, not by county
Under Safe Start, each county progressed through the four phases on its own. Because COVID-19 transmission doesn’t stop at the county line, Healthy Washington will instead group counties into eight different regions.
If you’re a regular Patch reader, that means you are likely in the Puget Sound region, which consists of King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
Restrictions are working, a cause for optimism
Health officials say the only reason the plan is under consideration at all, is because Washingtonians have put in the work following safety regulations. That work is starting to pay dividends as case counts, while high, have begun to plateau across the state.
The secretary of health expressed optimism that the new phase program would work, citing a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control which found that Washington had one of the lowest COVID-19 transmission rates, and the success of recent restrictions in quelling the surge.
“We know that the restrictions that the governor put in place in November have been working,” Shah said. “We are not out of the woods yet, but our case rates have started to come down.”