OLYMPIA — 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 percent — and physical distance requirements are no longer required.
One restriction that will remain in place is a 75 percent 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.
Businesses are celebrating the lifting of restrictions, with some posting pictures of their expanded seating on social media.
One of the challenges for restaurants in particular is being able to have enough workers to meet customer demand after a year of having to lay off people as business plummeted, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.
“We lost almost our entire workforce over the course of the year,” Anton said at a news conference on Tuesday. “We’re still short 80,000 workers.”
Inslee had two days of reopening events scheduled, starting Wednesday, first at Wright Park in Tacoma and then River Square Park in Spokane. On Thursday, he will raise a “Washington Ready” flag on top of the Space Needle in Seattle and will also visit Pike Place Market.
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 percent 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 older is just shy of 69 percent.
Residents age 12-15 have been eligible for vaccination since last month, and more than 37 percent of that group have initiated vaccination, and about 28 percent are fully vaccinated.
There have been more than 414,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus another 36,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 5,920 deaths.