COVID cases rise, causing reopening rollbacks
— Created July 22, 2020 by Kathy Reed
By Kathy Reed
An alarming increase in the number of cases of COVID-19 across the state has caused Washington Gov. Jay Inslee to not only pause any forward progression in the phased reopening of the economy but roll back some of the activities previously permitted.
As of Monday, counties in Phase III of the Safe Start plan – like Island County – will once again have to limit the size of gatherings to 10 people rather than the 50 originally allowed under the guidelines. Those counties in Phase II or in modified Phase I must limit gatherings to no more than five people. In addition, live entertainment, whether indoor or outdoor, is prohibited.
Inslee said health officials believe large social gatherings are causing a sharp increase in the number of infections, which are averaging over 600 a day, more than the number of cases seen during the original spike in March.
“Social settings are now of such concern to us…that when we do have these meetings, social distancing is absolutely imperative,” Inslee said during his announcement of the rollbacks last week. “Doing things outside is so much safer than inside and of course, wearing masks are absolutely pivotal in our success in any and all of our social get-togethers.”
Exceptions to the new limits include spiritual services, weddings and funerals.
Inslee said he understands how difficult these re-implemented restrictions are for people.
“This is somewhat of a challenge for us, because the kind of things we have always treated as benign and innocent and healthy…are now dangerous,” he said, citing gatherings such as backyard barbecues, picnics and birthday parties with too many people are now not only a violation of his new order, but a health danger.
“As governor, I have a responsibility to share with people the things that are impacting deaths in our state and it is these innocent get-togethers,” Inslee continued. “We cannot let our guard down, even as we engage in more activities. But if we are going to save ourselves from increasing deaths, this is simply what we have to do.”
The new limitation on group size hits hard for Whidbey Island Center for the Arts in Langley, which has had to cancel its popular Summer Nights Series.
“We proactively closed on March 11, before Inslee’s decree, reopened for a brief four weeks and are now once again closed,” said WICA Executive Director Verna Everitt. “This is especially hard on our staff – many who were laid off only to happily return to work. It’s extremely hard to have to lay them off for a second time. Same for our local artists. They were so excited to have a paying gig again, to perform their art in front of an audience. And our audience was so appreciative. They knew that WICA had their safety first and foremost – we followed all CDC guidelines – which made them relaxed and able to enjoy an outdoor performance under the stars.”
The good news in this said Everitt, is that the nonprofit organization has learned it is possible to operate successfully on a smaller scale.
“The model for Summer Nights was a huge success,” she said. “With our max audience of 50 patrons, all of our shows were sold out or on their way to being sold out. What we learned was we can remain viable with a smaller crowd, socially distanced inside our theatre when we are allowed to return to Phase III and eventually Phase IV.”
Ultimately, returning to “normal,” or even returning to original Phase III guidelines, requires a decrease in the infection rate. Like the rest of the state, COVID-19 cases in Island County have been slowly and steadily climbing. According to the Island County Public Health website, there are now 217 confirmed cases of COVID-19 (as of Monday night) in Island County, up 36 cases since early June. It had held steady at 181 cases for weeks. Whidbey Weekly reached out to county health officials for comment multiple times, but got no response.
According to WhidbeyHealth, which has opened three new swabbing stations on Whidbey Island, approximately 30 tests were conducted each day at those locations only during the first week of operation. Specimen collection sites are located at the walk-in clinic in Clinton, the Cabot Drive Clinic in Oak Harbor and at the WhidbeyHealth Medical Center in Coupeville. Pre-registration by phone is required at all locations. Call 360-240-4055 Monday through Friday between 7 a.m. and 5 p.m. to register. Those registering will be given a specific time for their test and a testing location. Find more information at whidbeyhealth.org.
The spread of COVID-19 is also increasing among younger adults, according to Inslee. From January through March, the percentage of younger people infected with the virus was 22 percent. From May to June, that number jumped to 45 percent, leading the governor to threaten more rollbacks – or even another stay-at-home order – could be imminent.
“If individuals do not adhere to mask-wearing, do not adhere to social distancing, do not adhere to these limitations on gathering’s [these] rollbacks may be a forerunner to additional rollbacks,” said Inslee. “And, we cannot rule out the potential for another stay-at-home order this year and perhaps not in the too-distant future. So how individuals respond to this crisis will determine what happens to all of us combined.”
“There are many things at risk, ” agreed Washington Secretary of Health John Wiesman. “We have at risk schools opening in the fall with in-person classrooms if we don’t get a handle on this, because right now it is just simply moving in the wrong direction and is going to be too dangerous if this continues. This is about the impacts we can all make.
“The bottom line is, our attention to this can’t be a part-time job,” Wiesman continued. “This is a full-time job. Every interaction we have, we have to think about doing it safely; wearing our face coverings, keeping our distance. If we do that, we can bend the curve again, and it’s absolutely essential we do that.”
Despite rising cases and setbacks to reopening, Gov. Inslee said there is reason to be optimistic, especially because there are promising early results of vaccine trials being conducted in Washington state, although any vaccine is months away at best. Inslee said the most effective tools we have right now are face coverings, social distancing and limiting interactions with others.
“I want our students to go back into the classroom; I want our restaurants and businesses all to be open; I want the state budget to stop hemorrhaging billions of dollars; and I want people to be healthy and long-lived,” Inslee said. “We can accomplish those things if we abide by these simple principles.”