Washington State Leaders Hesitant About Counties Moving To Final Phase 4 Of State Reopening Plan

Thinly populated, rural counties in Washington -- such as Columbia County, seen here -- are in the vanguard of the state reopening process, but the final stage appears to be delayed. CREDIT: Tom Banse/N3
Thinly populated, rural counties in Washington -- such as Columbia County, seen here -- are in the vanguard of the state reopening process, but the final stage appears to be delayed. CREDIT: Tom Banse/N3

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Washington state leaders are expressing hesitancy about opening the door to the final phase of the governor’s four-phase reopening plan. By the end of this week, eight rural counties will have spent the minimum three weeks in Phase 3 and can then theoretically apply to lift most remaining coronavirus restrictions.

However, state Secretary of Health John Wiesman said he and Gov. Jay Inslee are not yet ready to entertain such a move.

“We are very concerned about thinking about any large gatherings or opening up things that really encourage people across the state to travel,” Wiesman said during a media briefing Tuesday.

In the county-by-county reopening process, Phase 4 resembles life getting back close to normal. Restrictions go away on travel, the size of public gatherings and large sporting events. Nightclubs and concert venues can open. Bars and gyms can operate at full capacity and unrestricted customer service at government offices and in-person schooling can resume.

Washington state's four-phase reopening plan as outlined by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 1, 2020.

Washington state’s four-phase reopening plan as outlined by Gov. Jay Inslee on May 1, 2020.

Social distancing guidelines and a new statewide face covering requirement would remain.

Wiesman said he has been very clear with county officials in the vanguard of reopening that there is presently no timeline for moving any place into Phase 4. Wiesman said this remains under active discussion among himself, Inslee and the governor’s policy team.

“It is safer to still limit our interactions out in the public,” Wiesman said. “This virus has not gone away.”

The administrator of Northeast Tri County Health District, Matt Schanz, said he shares some of the state Health Secretary’s concerns about making a big jump to near-normal business and social life. The three counties Schanz serves — Ferry, Stevens and Pend Oreille — could have been eligible on Friday to apply to Wiesman to move into Phase 4.

“We don’t want to make decisions that would be putting our citizens in danger by inviting mass gatherings,” Schanz said, especially given the surging coronavirus activity in neighboring Spokane County.

But Schanz said there is interest in his territory in taking a smaller step forward, for which there is currently no clear pathway laid out by the state Department of Health. The rural northeast corner of the state has been relatively unscathed by the pandemic to date.

“What we have been talking about is whether there can be an intermediate step between Phase 3 and 4,” Schanz said in an interview Wednesday from Colville.

Schanz said organizers of community events such as upcoming Fourth of July celebrations and the traditional county fairs in Ferry and Pend Oreille counties are holding out hope that some planned events can proceed, but they need clear guidance soon.

The list of counties that could have been eligible by the end of this week to seek state approval to move to Phase 4 included Ferry, Stevens, Pend Oreille, Columbia, Garfield, Lincoln and Whitman in eastern Washington and Wahkiakum in southwest Washington.

Garfield County in southeastern Washington has not recorded a single COVID-19 case since the pandemic began. Some of the other small counties can tally their total cases on one hand, including Lincoln (2), Ferry (1), Pend Oreille (3) and Wahkiakum (4).

After a spate of positive tests in the past two weeks, Columbia and Whitman counties are now falling short of several