Gov. Inslee on March 11, 2021. (TVW screengrab)
A little more than a year after COVID-19 hit Washington state, the light at the end of tunnel is finally getting closer.
Governor Inslee announced the much-anticipated Phase 3 of the Healthy Washington recovery plan on Thursday, which allows the state to reopen more of the economy. The entire state will advance to Phase 3 on Monday, March 22.
Phase 3 allows up to 50% occupancy for indoor spaces, such as restaurants, retails, gyms and fitness centers, and movie theaters, and up to 400 people for indoor and outdoor activities, as long as physical distancing and masking are enforced.
If you’ve missed going to a Mariners or Sounders game to cheer on your team in person, Phase 3 holds even more good news with a partial return to in-person spectator sports.
On the professional sports side, this announcement means the Mariners will get to welcome back a limited number of fans in person on opening day.
Outdoor events at facilities with permanent seating can have up to 25% capacity for fans who physically distance and wear masks.
The reopening of sports in Phase 3 is not just going to impact the Mariners and other spring professional teams. That same capacity is also allowed at high school and youth sports, motorsports, rodeos, and other similar outdoor spectator events.
The expanded spectator capacity for high school and youth sports kicks in Thursday, March 18, so families and fans can watch the kids play in person before the end of the season. The guidance applies to a safe and healthy expansion of youth sports as well, and the governor says high-contact sports, including basketball, wrestling, and cheerleading will be allowed to have competitions again.
“This is all great news for Washington, but we must continue doing all the things that work to control the spread of COVID-19 — like masking and distancing,” Inslee wrote on Twitter.
After the state moves to Phase 3 on March 22, all counties will remain in that phase for three weeks, after which the Washington State Department of Health will take a look at the numbers.
But that will work a bit differently.
On Thursday, Inslee also announced a new set of metrics, and a shift away from the regional system in favor of a return to a county by county approach. The county approach is something many business owners and elected officials have been calling for after some counties remained stuck in a lower phase due to problems in others parts of their region.
Under this new plan, counties will be evaluated every three weeks after the shift to Phase 3. Evaluations will happen on Mondays and take effect the following Friday, with the first one set for April 12.
If any county fails one or more of the metrics, that county will move down one phase.
To remain in Phase 3, larger counties will need to have no more than 200 cases per 100,000 population over a 14-day period. If the numbers slip, counties go back a phase, with Phase 2 between 350-200 cases per 100,000 over 14 days, and 9-9.5 hospitalizations per 100,000 over 7 days.
A rollback all the way to Phase 1 kicks in if cases reach 350 or more per 100,000 over 14 days, or 10 or more hospitalizations per 100,000 over 7 days.
The metrics are lower for 17 counties with populations of 50,000 or less. Those counties are: Klickitat, Asotin, Pacific, Adams, San Juan, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Lincoln, Ferry, Wahkiakum, Columbia, Kittitas, Stevens, Douglas, Okanogan, Jefferson, and Garfield.
The smaller counties will need to see no more than 30 cases over 14 days and no more than three hospitalizations per 7 days in order to hold on to Phase 3.
Inslee said people incarcerated at state or federal prison facilities will not be included in calculating a county’s case counts, but workers in prisons, jails, detention centers and other correctional facilities will.
If at any point the statewide ICU capacity reaches 90%, all counties will move to Phase 1.
The governor’s office stressed that the state Department of Health always maintains the ability to move a county forward or backward at their discretion if the disease activity warrants a move.
Many had speculated that the vaccination rate might be included in the new metrics, but that is not the case. However, Gov. Inslee’s staff says improved vaccination rates can only improve the situation and help get even more of the state open down the line.
“We think we’re doing well in the race, both in the vaccination and the continuing masking, but we need to keep that up,” Inslee said.
Gov. Inslee added Thursday that the next tier of vaccine eligibility will happen earlier than originally thought. All those eligible in Phase 1B, tier 2, will now be eligible for a COVID vaccine on March 17.