Larger Capacities for Indoor and Outdoor Spaces Allowed as Washington Moves To Phase 3

by Jack Russillo

Just under a year after Gov. Jay Inslee issued a statewide stay-at-home order to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, he made another announcement that signals confidence in Washington’s ability to recover from the pandemic.

Across Washington, cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, have been decreasing since the state spiked with cases in December. This prompted Inslee to announce that all 39 of Washington’s counties can transition to Phase 3 of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan on March 22. Inslee also said that the state’s Roadmap to Recovery will shift back to being based on individual counties instead of the regional approach that was used for the first two phases.

“Because of the progress we’ve made by decreasing our case rates and hospitalizations, as well as our tremendous efforts to get more people vaccinated, our reopening plan is once again based on counties, not regions,” Inslee said during his press conference on Thursday. “We are excited to take this step and we will keep evaluating our progress and the impacts of these changes, to determine how and when we reopen further.”

During his announcement to move all counties to Phase 3, Inslee stated that all indoor activity spaces — including indoor dining at restaurants, indoor fitness centers, movie theaters, and retail stores — can increase capacity from 25% to 50% or 400 people, whichever figure is lower. Outdoor events with permanent seating can have up to 25% capacity. This includes professional sports teams and high school sports events, rodeos, and other outdoor spectator events. Social distancing and facial coverings will still be required. For youth and high school sports — high contact sports included — the new provisions will begin even earlier, on March 18. 

The third phase also allows for up to 400 people to attend outdoor activities, as long as 400 people does not exceed 50% capacity for the location. Larger venue events are capped at 25% occupancy, or up to 9,000 people, whichever is less, and must follow spectator guidelines

“We have to understand, we’re still in a fight,” said Inslee. “There are variants out there and this thing could spring back on us again. The way I look at it, we’re hitting COVID with the left, with the vaccine, but we have to hit it with the right, to continue to pound it with wearing masks and everything else we know that works. And we have to keep pounding it into the canvas until it can’t get back up. If we do this, I have tremendous confidence in having a good summer with a lot of joy in our state.”

Under the updated plan, counties will be individually evaluated every three weeks to determine if they need to move back a phase. The evaluations will occur on Mondays, with any changes taking effect the Friday of that week, and the the first evaluation is scheduled for April 12.

Counties are grouped into either a large (more than 50,000 residents) or small (less than 50,000) category and each will have different sets of criteria. For large counties to remain in Phase 3, they must keep a 14-day average of new COVID-19 cases at or below 200 per 100,000 residents and a seven-day average of new hospitalizations per 100,000 at five or fewer. Smaller counties must maintain a 14-day average of new cases at 30 or fewer and a new seven-day hospitalization average at three or fewer.

If any county fails one or more of the metrics, that county will move back one phase in the recovery plan. Also, if at any point the statewide Intensive Care Unit capacity reaches greater than 90%, all counties will move down one phase. Finally, the state’s Department of Health will continue to have the ability to move a county forward or backward at their discretion.

“We know there is enthusiasm around opening of schools and businesses and that advancing to Phase 3 is welcome news to many Washingtonians,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for the Department of Health’s COVID-19 response, at the press conference. “We want to keep going forward together out of the pandemic, and our success hinges upon wearing masks, washing our hands, watching our distance, keeping social circles small — and of course, getting vaccinated when it’s our turn. These are the things that will help us suppress COVID-19, which is the key to our continued forward progress towards recovery.”

On the vaccine front, Inslee touted the 60-plus percent of Washingtonians aged 65 and older that have already been fully vaccinated, which paves the way for everyone in Phase 1B, Tier 2 to be eligible for their COVID-19 vaccine starting Wednesday, March 17. This includes workers in agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, public transit, firefighters and law enforcement, among others. Tier 2 also includes people over the age of 16 who are pregnant or have a disability that puts them at high risk.

Inslee also noted that those who have been eligible and have not received their vaccine yet will continue to remain eligible until they get one.

“This is another tremendous step forward in our fight against this pandemic,” said Inslee. “We’re glad to be able to release this even a week earlier than we thought we were going to be able to do to get more shots into arms as quickly as possible.”

Jack Russillo has been reporting in Western Washington since 2013. He covers the environment, social justice, and other topics that affect a sustainable and equitable future. He currently lives in Seattle’s Beacon Hill neighborhood.

Featured Image: Screenshot of Governor Jay Inslee’s press conference on March 11, 2021.

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