After Gov. Jay Inslee provided new guidance Tuesday for larger counties to start reopening businesses, Spokane County leaders said if all goes to plan, many businesses will be allowed to reopen by this weekend.
The new guidance allowed 10 counties that have had less than 10 new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents over the past 14 days to apply for approval to move to Phase 2 of the state's reopening plan.
Under that phase, many restaurants will be able to reopen at 50 percent capacity, with extra spacing between customers, limits on table sizes, and enhanced sanitary measures for staff to ensure an even higher level of sanitation than under usual state health rules.
Retailers would also be allowed to reopen with some restrictions on how many people can be in a store at one time, and social distancing of six feet between individuals. Many other businesses will be able to open as well, with specific guidance on safety, including hair and nail salons, pet groomers, house cleaning, and construction and manufacturing that haven't already been allowed to restart.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward and Spokane County Commissioner Al French held a press conference Tuesday night to voice their support for the new guidance and express their hopes to see many businesses reopen within days.
French thanked the community for responsibly distancing during the past several weeks, citing those actions as keeping Spokane County's case numbers down, which in turn enables the move to start opening the economy.
"You've been patient and you've been thoughtful, you've put community first," French said. "We've made it clear to the governor we want to be in Phase 2 before Memorial Day weekend. We expect a quick response from the state."
Similarly, Woodward said she hoped the businesses and workers who'd been waiting so long to reopen would be able to get back to work this weekend.
"Our advocacy has paid off, and I'm grateful the governor has listened to us, and that he acted," Woodward said. "We are very, very hopeful that after we submit our proposal for the second time, to go into Phase 2, that it will be accepted very quickly."
Under its new application, the county has to show it has enough personal protective equipment for hospitals and health care workers, enough capacity in the health care system to handle a surge of 20 percent and, among other things, show that there is a minimum of 15 contact tracers per 100,000 people, for a total of 75.
Spokane Regional Health District Administrative Officer Amelia Clark said that the county was able to secure the full 75 contact tracers Tuesday, with plans to add health district staff as necessary, and student volunteers from Eastern Washington University already being trained in the work of contacting people who've likely been around someone who has the virus.
Some businesses that aren't eligible to reopen until the third phase of the state plan, including bars, have reopened in violation of the governor's orders in recent days. French said that he hoped the majority of businesses would wait a few more days before opening with the official move to Phase 2.
"The Board of County Commissioners is fully aware of the frustration that many people in this community are feeling with regard to the impact on their lives, the impact on their businesses, but we are in the home stretch now," French said. "Please be patient for the next couple days, give us a chance to get us open, and that way you don't have to worry about somebody coming and knocking on your door trying to educate you about the fact you're in violation of the governor's order."
Some cities are also discussing sidewalk cafe space and partial street closures to enable restaurants to reopen and get the capacity that will enable them to make a profit, French says.
The health district expects to submit the new application in the next day or two, Clark says. The application will include updated health statistics, and a letter of support from health officer Dr. Bob Lutz, as well as a resolution that the Spokane County commissioners passed Tuesday afternoon.
"We request that we be allowed to join our five neighboring counties who have already been approved for Phase 2 since we act as one interconnected commercial zone," a letter from the three commissioners reads. "We have the ability to test, do case and contact investigations, and protect high-risk populations."
French said that he hopes that once approved, the county will then be able to quickly get the guidance for moving into Phase 3.
"We know that we are ahead of other large counties in the state in terms of our metrics, so we're hoping that reflects well as we move forward as a community," French said.
One of the other important conversations moving forward will be about lost funding, French said. As the county looks for resources, flexibility is also key, he said, as federal assistance provided to the county under the CARES act was not eligible to recover lost revenue, for example.
"The county is already looking at a loss of revenue probably close to around $15 million, and that's only being five months into the year," French said. "We don't know what other types of impacts we may have. It's not just about mitigating, it's also about recovery."