CORONAVIRUS UPDATES: Washington Restaurants And Bars To Close, K-12 Schools Go On Hiatus

BY AUSTIN JENKINS, ASHLEY GROSS, KARI PLOG, TOM BANSE, NICK DESHAIS, ENRIQUE PÉREZ DE LA ROSA & SCOTT LEADINGHAM

Updated March 15, 2020, 8:10 p.m. PT

The COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt public health, social gathering, education and business.

Joining states like Ohio and Illinois, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Sunday night announced plans to order the temporary closure of restaurants, bars, entertainment and recreational facilities, as well as restricted gatherings to no more than 50 people, as the state continues to battle what he called an “explosion of COVID-19 in our state and globally.”

Restaurants will be allowed to offer take-out and delivery, but not in-person dining, the governor’s press release said.

“These are very difficult decisions, but hours count here and very strong measures are necessary to slow the spread of the virus,” Inslee said in a statement. “I know there will be significant economic impacts to all our communities and we are looking at steps to help address those challenges.”

Inslee said King County, the epicenter of the outbreak, will implement the restrictions immediately. The Democratic governor plans to sign a statewide emergency proclamation on Monday imposing the limits statewide beginning at midnight Monday. He did not indicate how long the closures would last.

The forced shuttering of businesses will not apply to grocery stores and pharmacies. Inslee’s office said other retail outlets would be required to reduce occupancy in their stores.

Previously, Inslee had ordered a limit on gatherings of more than 250 people and closed all schools statewide for six weeks. This announcement represents a significant next step and escalation of the governor’s use of his emergency powers and the state’s efforts to slow the spread of the disease.

The additional, and unprecedented measures, come as the state of Washington has identified at least 769 cases of COVID-19 and reported 42 deaths as of Sunday, March 15, the majority in King County.

See updated numbers and information here from the Washington Department of Health.

Seventeen of Washington’s 39 counties now have at least one reported case of the virus.

“Extraordinary Week” As All Washington Schools To Close

On Friday, March 13, capping an extraordinary news week as the state confronts the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee ordered all K-12 public and private schools to close for at least six weeks.  It came one day after he announced a six-week school closure for three counties in the Puget Sound region that have so far borne the brunt of the COVID-19 cases.

During his announcement, Inslee said the novel coronavirus has spread to affect 15 counties, representing roughly 75 percent of the state’s population. He said state health officials have detected 568 cases so far, including 37 deaths.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announces the closing of all K-12 schools in three Washington counties on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The closure was extended statewide on Friday for at least six weeks. CREDIT: Rachel La Corte/AP

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announces the closing of all K-12 schools in three Washington counties on Thursday, March 12, 2020. The closure was extended statewide on Friday for at least six weeks. CREDIT: Rachel La Corte/AP

The governor also extended the ban on gatherings with 250 people or more, prohibiting large events across the entire state.

“We need a more coordinated state approach to this problem, given how integrated this state is,” Inslee said.

His latest directive will take all children out of school from March 17 through at least April 24, causing upheaval for families across the state. It also means that districts are tasked with figuring out how to continue to feed children who depend on free or reduced-price meals. Statewide, more than 45 percent of students come from low-income families and qualify for discounted or free meals.

Inslee said the federal government’s emergency declaration will help support Washington’s on-the-ground effort.

Chris Reykdal, superintendent of public instruction, says districts are expected to walk a fine line between enforcing social distancing and also supporting families who will need to rely on childcare services.

“This is a balancing act,” Reykdal said.

Inslee stressed that transforming schools into childcare centers isn’t feasible, especially as communities work together to curb the spread of COVID-19.

“We’re asking people to think of the schools as a childcare center of last resort,” Inslee said. He noted Washington residents must pull together as citizens have in times of war, adding that nurses and first-responders can’t be pulled from workplaces to care for their children.

Inslee also urged people to stay informed in what has continued to be a fluid and rapidly evolving situation. “We need to guard against viruses and rumors in this situation,” he said.

Washington is by no means alone in shuttering schools. Ohio, Maryland, New Mexico, West Virginia, Oregon and Michigan have all announced statewide school closures to stem the spread of the virus. The illness is mild for the majority of people but is particularly dangerous for older people and those with compromised immune systems or underlying health issues. As of Thursday afternoon, Washington reported 457 confirmed cases and 31 deaths.

Need For Child Care

With the pandemic forcing schools to close statewide across Oregon and Washington, there will be a huge jump in the need for child care beginning next week. Superintendents and state officials are trying to figure out if some schools can be child care centers “of last resort.”

Both Oregon Gov. Kate Brown and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee say they realize closing schools adds a burden on parents, especially those who work in health care.

“We simply cannot have nurses leaving hospitals when they become deluged with patients to do childcare. Same thing for first responders,” Inslee said Friday.

So the challenge becomes: What school programs can you keep open to provide some child care without defeating the whole purpose of closing schools to stop person-to-person virus transmission? Reykdal says he’s asked districts to submit plans for how to prioritize.

“Your high school students, most of your middle schoolers are probably going to be at home learning at a distance or working on some sort of learning strategy,” Reykdal said. “We’re talking about a subset of elementary school students primarily and some 3 and 4 year olds who still need support because mom and dad or grandparents can’t figure out that local childcare option.”

Closing schools statewide affects 1.2 million students in Washington and another 600,000 or so in Oregon.

Idaho Schools And Confirmed Cases

Idaho has yet to see a statewide schools decree, though Gov. Brad Little did declare a state of emergency Friday. That’s meant to free up resources and make hiring and public contracting easier and ensure the state and county healthcare systems are prepared.

Later on Friday Little announced the first detected case of COVID-19 in Idaho – a woman in her 50s in the Boise area. State health officials said in updated numbers numbers Saturday that there were at least five confirmed cases in the state, with more expected.

(See Idaho’s COVID-19 information here.)

The Moscow School District announced Friday that all of its schools would remain closed for students for at least two weeks following the regularly scheduled spring break, which ends March 22. The district said it was working on plans for “alternative instruction,” and that school staff are still to report to work on March 23.

“We will use the first two days to prepare for alternative methods of instruction,” Moscow Superintendent Greg Bailey said in a statement. “This may include online work, developing work packets for parents to pick up, or possibly scheduling individual or small groups of students to come to the school at assigned times to receive instruction.”

Colleges Go Online Only

Higher education institutions in Washington are also affected, with several already having shifted  instruction to all-online courses – or were planning to after their pending spring breaks.

Nearly 100,000 undergraduate students at public and private universities in eastern and central Washington are affected by the governor’s order.

Until the moment Inslee made the announcement Friday, numerous Northwest colleges had already made the decision to keep students away from the classroom.

The University of Washington, Washington State and Eastern Washington universities and Whitman College had all decided to shift classes online before Inslee spoke Friday afternoon.

Whitworth University in Spokane was one of the few remaining colleges to keep its normal schedule. But President Beck Taylor had already warned that in-person courses may be canceled.

Gonzaga had delayed the return of its students from spring break by a week, and was training faculty to teach online for the duration of the semester. The Community Colleges of Spokane also remained on a normal schedule. But students there were warned classes could go online. The same goes for Central Washington University and Columbia Basin College, which said operations were normal.

Late on Friday, the University of Idaho announced it would move to an online-only format for an indefinite period. The university, with its main campus is Moscow, previously said it would test online-only instruction for two days following the end of its spring break on March 22.

Nearby Washington State University, with its main campus just eight miles across the border in Pullman, said earlier in the week that it would go online only – before the governor’s mandate. WSU said Friday the online instructional phase would last the remainder of the spring semester. Plans for spring graduation ceremonies in May are still undecided.

Yakima Prepares, One Hospital Short

Yakima County has at least four cases of COVID-19 in the county so far, with numbers expected to change quickly. The number as of Friday evening included three confirmed and one presumptive positive. All came to light in the last week, and no patients have been hospitalized.

But health officials don’t want the local healthcare system to get overwhelmed.

Tanny Davenport is with Virginia Mason Memorial Hospital in Yakima.

“If we can slow down the spread of disease, we will prevent the system from being overwhelmed by a large number of acute cases,” Davenport said. “We are here for the community. We know we’re the only hospital in the city of Yakima.”

Memorial became Yakima’s only hospital after the Astria Regional Medical Center closed in January due to financial trouble. To address disease spread, Memorial will prohibit visitors, with a few exceptions. The hospital is also disbanding its volunteer workforce.

Ashley Gross and Kari Plog report for KNKX in Seattle/Tacoma. Tom Banse, Austin Jenkins and Nick Deshais are regional correspondents for the public media Northwest News Network. Northwest Public Broadcasting’s Enrique Pérez de la Rosa reports from Yakima, and Scott Leadingham from Pullman and Spokane.