Gov. Jay Inslee said it is essential that residents continue to adhere to COVID-19 precautions even as the state slowly reopens recreation and businesses, adding that some “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” restrictions are likely to stay in place through the end of the year.
“This virus is going to be with us for months and months,” Inslee said in a Thursday conference call with the Peninsula Daily News editorial board, including Publisher Terry Ward, Executive Editor Leah Leach and Sequim Gazette Editor Michael Dashiell.
Despite declining numbers of confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state, residents should “be responsible for a long time” until a vaccine is not only developed but also has been manufactured and widely distributed, he said.
“We want to make sure we wrestle this beast to the ground,” Inslee said. “The virus could come up like a tidal wave” if precautions such as social distancing — staying at least 6 feet apart from others while in public — are not continued to be used.
Inslee is scheduled to announce further details today on reopening the state’s economy as he eases restrictions on movement that were imposed March 23 and expire Monday.
He temporarily closed some businesses activities, imposed tight limits on restaurants, shut down gyms and exercise facilities and banned large gatherings to combat the COVID-19 pandemic, which has caused more than 800 deaths statewide — although none as of Thursday on the North Olympic Peninsula.
Inslee has joined scores of other governors in recent days in slowly re-opening the state to economic and social activity.
He said he is considering a varied strategy, one that would take into account lower population rural areas such as Clallam and Jefferson counties.
“We are looking at a potential differential to allow re-openings as sort of the next step,” Inslee said.
“We are looking at something that might make sense both from an epidemiological and economic standpoint. Obviously, the counties are different.”
Said Inslee: “We don’t want to have to shut down small businesses again. We don’t want to have to go through all this pain and have to do this again in August.”
Inlsee said it is “very doubtful” that schools, which were closed in March, will reopen this summer.
Asked if they will reopen at the start of the new school year, he responded, “I hope so.”
In making decisions on reopening the state, Inslee said he is relying on information about how much residents can be screened for the virus and combining that with contact tracing and isolation and the results of metrics including fatality rates, emergency room admissions and availability of hospital beds.
“All the numbers have to improve,” he said.
Clallam and Jefferson counties had by Thursday a combined number of 46 cases of the highly contagious respiratory virus compared with 6,103 in King County, which had 438 deaths.
Inslee warned against drawing comparisons between cases on the North Olympic Peninsula and more densely populated areas.
“What looks like a benign number at this stage in the pandemic could substantially grow outside of King County,” he said.
“We could see a rebound.”
Inslee said roadblocks to increased testing for COVID-19 on the Peninsula, where less than 3 percent of the population has been tested, include a lack of swab sampling material and viral transport media, although existing lab capacity would allow 20,000 tests a day to be processed.
But the federal government may provide enough test kits within the next two weeks to quadruple the state’s testing capacity, “wonderful, if it happens,” he added.
Inslee, who wore a face mask at his Wednesday press conference in Olympia, said wearing a face covering “makes sense to me” in confined spaces, noting that Costco will require all customers to wear masks, a rule that will be imposed Monday.
He said an executive order requiring residents to wear masks “is always under consideration” while he considers its effectiveness.
“We are obviously hoping that people are social distancing in all circumstances.”
Inslee said the state system has been overwhelmed by the number of unemployment applications, which has been seven to eight times higher than at any other time in recent memory, including the Great Recession of 2007.
State officials are hiring 200 new Employment Security Department staff a week to handle the flood of new unemployment claims, he said.
“There’s a huge effort to build capacity,” he said.
Inslee added that applicants could ease the process by being prepared with the necessary information.
In a decision that takes effect Tuesday, Inslee this week announced he is easing restrictions on visiting state parks and on day use of public lands managed by the Department of Natural Resources — and will allow golf — if social distancing guidelines are employed.
Some fishing and hunting also will be permitted beginning Tuesday.
Responding to concerns that Seattle-area residents may converge on the state recreation areas in Clallam and Jefferson counties, Inslee said the public lands “might have to shut down again” if people congregate in groups on them.
“Our message is to keep moving,” he said of visitors to those areas on the Peninsula. “If you’re not moving in a state park, you’re not doing your job.”
Inslee said it’s possible that restrictions he has been easing could be imposed anew if a rise in coronovirus cases is seen.
“We will do what’s necessary to protect Washingtonians,” he said.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.