Washington state will have another easing of COVID-19 restrictions in fewer than two weeks as Gov. Jay Inslee announced Thursday the whole state will be moving into Phase 3 of the “Healthy Washington” plan on March 22.
Citing the progress Washington as a state had made in decreasing case rates and hospitalizations alongside ongoing vaccination efforts, Inslee announced the upcoming change during a press conference March 11. The changes will feature greater capacities on a number of industries, as well as allowances for spectators at sporting events.
The Phase 3 allowances mean that all indoor activities allowed in Phase 2 will be able to increase capacity to 50 percent of a building, doubling prior limits. The increases include restaurants, gyms, fitness centers and movie theaters, “some of the hardest-hit businesses in Washington state,” the governor said.
Phase 3 also allows for outdoor activities of up to 400 people, as well as events in indoor facilities up to 50 percent capacity or 400 people, whichever is less, so long as physical distancing and masking protocols are enforced. Inslee mentioned that high school graduation ceremonies and concerts are allowed under the new restrictions.
Inslee also announced changes to rules on spectators at sporting events, with venues that have permanent outdoor seating allowing for up to 25 percent capacity in Phase 3. Apart from allowing for spectators at the Seattle Mariners’ opening day, Inslee said high school sports were also affected by the change, as well as motorsports and rodeos.
Inslee added that high-contact indoor sports such as basketball, wrestling and cheerleading will be allowed to commence under the new restrictions. He said more changes for other industries would be forthcoming in the following week, adding that capacity increases would be re-evaluated in April for potentially greater limits.
Following the March 22 switch, the state will see future changes in phases on a county-by-county basis, much like the prior “Safe Start Washington” plan implemented and then rescinded last year. Inslee said the Washington State Department of Health will evaluate counties every three weeks, with the first review planned for April 12.
The evaluation will be based on two metrics — the rate of new COVID-19 cases over 14 days and the rate of COVID-19 hospitalizations over seven days. For counties larger than 50,000 population, that rate will be based per 100,000 of population, while those smaller will have total cases and hospitalizations taken into account, according to information presented at the press conference.
In order for counties to stay in Phase 3, they must maintain a rate of less than 200 new cases per 100,000 population in 14 days and less than five hospitalizations per 100,000 in seven days for larger ones, and below 30 new COVID-19 cases in 14 days and less than three hospitalizations in seven days for smaller ones.
Inslee added there was a “failsafe” that if statewide intensive care unit (ICU) capacity was greater than 90 percent, all counties would move back a phase.
Outside of easing restrictions, Inslee also announced fast-tracking of the state’s vaccination programs, opening the next tier of eligible Washingtonians to receive their shots starting March 17, a week earlier than initially anticipated. The tier includes all workers in agriculture, food processing, grocery stores, public transit, firefighters, law enforcement and corrections, as well as individuals 16 and older who are pregnant or who have a disability that puts the person at a high risk.
The governor reiterated that those in prior tiers would remain eligible to receive their vaccine.
“If you’re over 65 and you haven’t received your vaccine yet … you will continue to be (eligible) throughout this entire pandemic,” Inslee said.
This story will be updated
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