Governor’s Safe Start plan now in effect
People will be able to go out to eat or have a beer, get a haircut, or browse in a store — with some restrictions — if Okanogan County’s application to move to Phase II in the state’s COVID-19 plan is approved.
Under Phase II, restaurants and bars would still be restricted to 50% capacity and must keep tables 6 feet apart. There will be no seating at the bar.
Retail stores would be able to operate at 30% capacity but must keep everyone — customers, employees — 6 feet apart. Professional services could also start up again, although doing business by phone or online would still be encouraged.
Phase II would also expand non-essential travel, allowing trips within proximity of home.
The county’s application takes advantage of the state’s new Safe Start plan, which went into effect Monday (June 1) and gives counties more flexibility to implement and monitor their resumption of economic and social activities. The plan includes metrics the county must meet — new COVID infections, health care capacity, testing, and contract tracing — but considers them as a multi-faceted approach to the pandemic, rather than requiring that a county meet every single target.
“These metrics are intended to be applied as ‘targets,’ not hard-line measures,” according to the state’s summary of the Safe Start plan. “The identified actions each contribute to reducing risk of disease transmission, and are to be considered in whole. Where one target is not fully achieved, actions taken with a different target may offset the overall risk.”
Safe Start replaces the state’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy restrictions, which has governed life in Washington since mid-March and expired at the end of May.
“We are able to do this thanks to millions of Washingtonians pulling together, in the face of sacrifice and suffering, and doing their part by staying home,” Gov. Jay Inslee said in a press conference on Friday (May 29). “But this does not mean that we are returning to normal. It means that after three months, we are successfully moving forward.”
The holistic approach was the key for Okanogan County, which exceeds many of the goals — for contact tracing and hospital capacity — but doesn’t meet all of them, Community Health Director Lauri Jones said at a Board of Health meeting on Monday (June 1).
The county had already applied for a variance from the state to move part of the way to Phase II but, after waiting all last week for an answer, never got an approval or denial, Jones said. Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman explained that the county’s application got caught in the transition as the state was finalizing the new guidelines, Jones told the board.
The county quickly prepared the detailed application to move to Phase II and submitted it on June 1. Wiesman promised Okanogan’s application will be the first they review, Jones said. As of Tuesday afternoon (June 2), the county was on the list of those that had applied to change status, but no decision had been made.
The secretary of health also has the discretion to allow a county to re-open some types of businesses but not others, rather than approving a full-scale move to the next phase.
Under the state’s new criteria, a county has to have fewer than 25 new COVID cases per 100,000 residents in the past 14 days. Okanogan County currently doesn’t meet that goal — there were 30.4 cases — but Jones expects the county will fall below the target within the next 14-day period. There are no disease outbreaks in the county, she said.
The county’s hospitals are well equipped to meet the goals. No COVID patients are currently hospitalized and hospitals have adequate beds to treat anyone who is seriously ill. All three hospitals submitted letters with the application.
The county needs to shorten the time between the onset of symptoms and a COVID test. A recent shipment of tests will help the county meet that goal, Jones said.
With a 100% success rate in contact tracing. Okanogan County exceeds the state goals for following up with everyone who has been infected with or exposed to COVID-19 — and with isolating anyone who is sick. The county has enough trained contact tracers but is still seeking to expand its pool of Spanish-speaking contact tracers.
Under the new guidelines, counties must monitor COVID infections and the ability of the health care system to cope.
The application to move to Phase II includes an agreement between the county and cities, which will provide 25% of their allocation from the federal CARES act to Public Health to be used to address the COVID pandemic.
If necessary for the public health, or to control an outbreak, a county can revert to an earlier phase — which would involve re-imposing some restrictions. The state can also order a county to return to an earlier phase.
Counties can apply to move to the next phase after three weeks in their current phase. Phase III opens indoor gyms, movie theaters, libraries and galleries, and allows restaurants to go up to 75% capacity. The final phase of the four-step process is essentially a return to “normal,” pre-COVID activities and travel, re-opening nightclubs, and large sporting events.
Twenty-seven counties — most of eastern Washington, the Olympic Peninsula, and southwestern Washington — were already in Phase II last week.
As of Friday (May 29), Okanogan County had recorded 49 confirmed COVID cases, with 39 of the people recovering. Of the confirmed cases, five were in the Methow Valley, 11 on the Colville Indian Reservation, 19 in the south county (Pateros to Malott), 11 in the central valley (Malott to Riverside), and three in the north county (Riverside to Oroville). The county had tested almost 1,500 people and 116 results were still pending.