15 Months Into Restrictions, Washington Mostly Drops COVID Business And Crowd Limitations
BY KNKX AND ASSOCIATED PRESS STAFF
Fifteen months after Washington state’s first “stay at home” order was issued in response to the coronavirus, businesses across the state are now allowed to return to pre-pandemic operations.
On Wednesday, most government-imposed restrictions were lifted, meaning restaurants, bars, gyms and retail stores are now allowed to resume full indoor capacity — up from the most recent limit of 50% — and physical distance requirements are no longer required.
“We are open big time in the state of Washington,” Inslee told a group gathered at Wright Park in Tacoma, the first stop of several reopening visits scheduled, including one at River Square Park in Spokane later Wednesday. On Thursday, he will raise a “Washington Ready” flag on top of the Space Needle in Seattle and will also visit Pike Place Market.
Businesses are celebrating the lifting of restrictions, with some posting pictures of their expanded seating on social media.
Oly Taproom, a beer shop and taproom in Olympia that has long offered outdoor seating, posted a picture of its restored indoor bar seating — something that wasn’t allowed under previous restrictions — as did El Camino, a Mexican restaurant in Seattle, which reminded customers that the bar stools are available on first come, first serve basis, just “as B.C. (Before Covid) times.”
“I think our restaurants are going to see a boom,” Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said at a news conference Tuesday. “People are really excited to be back.”
But Anton’s excitement is tempered by a big concern: Restaurants don’t have enough workers.
“We lost almost our entire workforce over the course of the year. We’re still short 80,000 workers,” he explained. “So, if anyone has a friend that wants an extra job or a little extra money, people are hiring.”
Katy Cumby, the retail operations and taproom manager at Reuben’s Brews in Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, says customers shouldn’t expect everything to return to normal right away.
For example, her taproom is adding more outdoor seating but taking it slow elsewhere.
“Right now, our plan is to go to 100 percent capacity in our main taproom, but we’re still going to leave off having indoor seating for the moment to ease our taproom staff back into that level of business we’re expecting,” she said.
Anton of the hospitality association has a request for restaurant patrons: “Please show grace to the workers who are there. They’re either learning a new job or working for two, trying to welcome you back to Washington and move us forward.”
The state is still falling short of a vaccination goal that Inslee had set that would have allowed the restrictions to be lifted even sooner: 70% of residents age 16 and older having received at least one dose.
Even with the creation of lottery incentives with prizes up to $1 million, the statewide vaccination rate for those 16 and up is just shy of 69%.
Residents age 12-15 have been eligible for vaccination since last month, and more than 37% of that group have initiated vaccination, and about 28% are fully vaccinated.
Republican Sen. John Braun said that while he’s happy businesses can fully reopen, he’s disappointed that the governor has not declared an end to the public health emergency, which means Inslee still has the power to reimpose restrictions.
“If it’s safe to reopen on June 30, why are we still in an emergency?” Braun asked. “It creates a whole bunch of uncertainty.”
There have been more than 414,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus another 36,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 5,920 deaths.
One restriction that will remain in place is a 75% attendance cap on large indoor events of more than 10,000 people, unless the event does vaccination verification prior to entry and all attendees are vaccinated. Those restrictions will be reevaluated on July 31.
And while there have already been fewer masking requirements since last month — when the state adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that eased most indoor mask-wearing for fully vaccinated people — masking rules will remain in a variety of places, including health care settings, public transit and schools. Masks will continue to be required for unvaccinated employees who return to work indoors. And businesses can continue to choose to require masks for their customers, regardless of vaccination status.
KNKX reporters Paula Wissel and Rebekah Way contributed to this story.
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