Washington’s economy can fully reopen June 30 — and possibly sooner if enough people are vaccinated, Gov. Jay Inslee said May 13.
Inslee said a decline in COVID-19 activity across the state enabled him to set the date for a resumption of normal public life, when restaurants, bars, retail stores, movie theaters, bowling alleys and the rest of the private sector can operate at full indoor capacity.
Until then, a 50% capacity on indoor activities in public spaces remains in place, the governor said at a news conference.
And many health and safety requirements remain in effect.
However, Inslee said the state will adopt newly relaxed federal guidance on masking, with vaccinated people no longer required to wear them. That said, masks still will be required in certain settings, such as health-care and transportation facilities.
The new guidance by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention still calls for unvaccinated citizens to wear masks, but it clears the way for reopening workplaces, schools and other venues by easing the need for mask use or social distancing by those who are fully vaccinated.
“Anyone who is fully vaccinated can participate in indoor and outdoor activities, large or small, without wearing a mask or physical distancing,” CDC Director Rochelle Walensky said during a White House briefing on Thursday (May 13). “If you are fully vaccinated, you can start doing the things you have stopped doing because of the pandemic.” Masks are still required for everyone traveling on public transportation, including buses, trains, airports and stations.
Unvaccinated people, meanwhile, “remain at risk of mild or severe illness, of death or of spreading the disease to others,” Walensky said, and they should continue to wear masks.
The Washington reopening timeline could be earlier than June 30. The governor is prepared to act sooner if at least 70% of Washingtonians 16 and older have initiated vaccinations before that date. Currently, 57% of those 16 and older have had at least one dose, and 43.7% are fully vaccinated, according to the state Department of Health.
The reopening date could get pushed back, on the other hand, should hospitalizations surge and intensive care unit beds fill. If statewide ICU capacity reaches 90% at any point, there could be a re-imposition of restrictions to save lives, Inslee said.
The pressure to fully reopen has been increasing nationwide. Washington was one of six states that had not fully reopened or had not announced criteria or a date to reopen, according to The New York Times.
Inslee chose June 30 because trends suggest it won’t be until then that the state reaches the desired vaccination threshold. He said he hopes people will get vaccinated faster so the state can reopen sooner.
To that end, the state is looking to beef up incentives for people to get their doses.
Effective immediately, the state is easing restrictions on activities involving fully vaccinated people.
There will be new guidance on attendance limits for spectator events, such as indoor and outdoor sports. Weddings and funerals will be allowed to have full capacity if all attendees are vaccinated. Small cruise ships with fewer than 250 passengers can sail if the crew and 95% of passengers are vaccinated. This will apply to conferences and live performances as well.
Other promotions are in the offing.
The state Department of Commerce is working with the Association of Washington Business to provide vaccinated residents with gift cards to local businesses. The Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board is considering a request from wineries and breweries to allow them to “buy a glass or a pint” for vaccinated customers.
And, Inslee said, prizes will be given away to vaccinated individuals at home games of the Seattle Mariners.
Even with reopening, the state of emergency will not end June 30, he said. The virus is not finished with us and the state is entering another chapter, one that shifts from restrictions on public life to vaccinations, the governor said.
Last week, seven counties were on the cusp of falling back to Phase 2 restrictions because case rates and hospitalizations exceeded state guidelines for remaining in Phase 3.
But Inslee intervened with a two-week pause on rolling back counties, citing a possible plateau in COVID-19 case rates.
He announced that starting Tuesday (May 18), the entire state would again be in Phase 3. That means three counties — Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman — will be elevated from Phase 2, in which they have been mired for much of the past month.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.