As State Hits 50,000-Case Milestone, South King County Appears to Be Next Potential Outbreak Hotspot

by Carolyn Bick

Washington State has reached a new milestone in the ongoing saga of the novel coronavirus pandemic. As of today, there have been 50,000 people who have tested positive for the virus, since the start of the pandemic.

This is not a good number.

In a press conference on July 23, Gov. Jay Inslee announced that the continued rise means the state will be tweaking restrictions in its Safe Start phased reopening plan. Washington Department of Health Sec. John Wiesman also announced that the statewide public health masking order will be extended to indoor common settings and congregate living settings. These include elevators, hallways, and university housing, as well as elder care homes.

“The rise in case counts, hospitalizations and death, due to COVID-19 in Washington State are a direct result of our collective behaviors,” Wiesman said. “We must … prevent runaway growth of COVID-19 in our state with fewer, shorter, and safer interactions, as deemed crucial. One way we are promoting safer interactions is by using face coverings. Wearing face coverings and limiting our interactions makes a huge difference.”

Wiesman pointed to Yakima County, which had been seeing an almost unmitigated explosion in cases. As a result, patients quickly exceeded hospitals’ capacity and some people were transported to western Washington hospitals. But because about 95 percent of people now wear face masks in Yakima County, Wiesman said, the case rate there has sharply dropped off.

Wiesman did not note that Inslee had specifically issued a mask mandate for Yakima County, which is not the same thing as the statewide public health order.

The updated statewide mask order goes into effect on Saturday. But, as has continued to be the case, this order will not be actively enforced. Inslee said that breaking pre-existing rules like this one, such as overly large gatherings, are considered misdemeanors. Inslee said that people should not be doing such things, as this is going to only contribute to the spread of the virus, but that the state won’t send in “helicopter troops to parachute into your backyard.” 

It should be noted that mask enforcement does not require helicopters, military troops, or parachutes, as demonstrated in several East Coast states and, more recently, California.

Washingtonians’ willingness to mask up could also be a collective life-or-death decision for those who live in South King County, which has specifically been identified as a potential new hotspot for an outbreak. And because South King County is home to many low-income families, immigrants, and Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC), this would mean a fresh outbreak has the potential to have an even greater negative impact on families in the area. As the data has shown, Black and Latinx populations are three times as likely to catch the virus and twice as likely to die from complications from COVID-19, the disease associated with the virus.

In response to the Emerald’s question about what’s being done to help stop the spread in South King County specifically, Wiesman said that he knows Public Health – Seattle & King County has been working with local groups to do outreach in the community, and that there have been a number of testing sites established there. He also said that the money the state has given out to local public health offices has supported their work. However, he said that working in places like South King County is primarily the responsibility of local public health officials.

Inslee also announced that the statewide moratoriums on evictions will be extended to Oct. 15, and that legislators and stakeholders are close to announcing a relief fund for undocumented workers. He said further details on both announcements will be forthcoming.

The tweaked ordinances concern counties in later phases of reopening, and are primarily targeted towards indoor gatherings, such as weddings and funerals, and indoor food and beverage services.

While ceremonies are permitted, receptions are now prohibited. This goes for both religious and secular weddings and funerals. For all phases of the reopening plan, only 30 people or 20% occupancy — whichever is less — are allowed indoors at a time, and only as long as there is six feet of distance between all attendees.

People who don’t live in the same household may no longer sit indoors at restaurants together, and restaurants will be required to close down game areas, like pool tables, darts, and video games. They will also be required to stop beverage service at 10 p.m., and bars — which include taverns, wineries, distilleries, and breweries — are completely barred from serving alcohol indoors, regardless of whether or not they serve food.

There is also new guidance around gyms, principally that in Phase 2, fitness centers may not have more than five people inside at a time, excluding staff. In Phase 3, fitness centers are reduced to 25% occupancy.

The tweaked ordinances may be found here.

Carolyn Bick is a journalist and photographer based in South Seattle. You can reach them here and here.

Featured image: Dee Powers accepts bagged face masks from Daniel Ojalvo, not pictured here, through the window of the mobile home they share with their partner in the SODO area of Seattle, Washington, on May 10, 2020. (Photo: Carolyn Bick)