Inslee announces new restrictions after rise in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations

New rules will prohibit indoor dining at restaurants and bars; severely limit small-group gatherings and shutter theaters, zoos and museums

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Washington Governor Jay Inslee (right) speaks about the COVID-19 pandemic's impact on Washingtonians' mental health, during a press conference held Thursday, Sept. 17. (Screenshot by Kelly Moyer/Post-Record)

Washingtonians will be under a new set of COVID-19 restrictions beginning this week.

Gov. Jay Inslee today announced the four-week, statewide restrictions — which will shutter indoor service at restaurants and bars and limit outdoor table service — in response to rapidly rising numbers of COVID-19 throughout the state and the nation. 

Daily COVID-19 cases in Washington state have doubled over the past two weeks, with 2,000 new COVID-19 cases recorded this weekend. 

This spike puts us in a more dangerous position, as we were in March,” Inslee said during a press conference Sunday, Nov. 15. “And it means, unfortunately, the time has come to reinstate restrictions on activities statewide to preserve the public’s well-being, and to save lives. These were very difficult decisions that have very real consequences to people’s livelihoods. I recognize that and don’t take those impacts lightly, but we must act now and act quickly to slow the spread of this disease.”

The new restrictions begin at 11:59 p.m. Monday, Nov. 16 and will last through at least Dec. 14. The new rules for restaurants will begin one day later  than the others, at 12:01 a..m. Wednesday, Nov. 18.

The new restrictions prohibit people from gathering indoors with people outside their households unless all parties have quarantined for 14 days prior or for seven days following a negative COVID-19 test. Outdoor gatherings with non-household members will be limited to no more than five people. Long-term care facilities will not allow indoor visits except for end-of-life care and essential support workers. 

The new restrictions also will close indoor dining and limit table sizes to no more than five for outdoor dining at restaurants and bars (pick-up and delivery services will still be permitted); close movie theaters, bowling alleys, museums, zoos and aquariums; close indoor operations and limit outdoor gatherings to five people at fitness facilities and gyms; limit religious services to 25 percent or 200 people whichever is less for indoor events, require face coverings be worn at all times during religious services and prohibit choirs and bands from performing at indoor or outdoor religious services; and prohibit indoor weddings and funeral ceremonies.

The governor said the restrictions are limited to four weeks, which he said is “the minimal, reasonable length of time to assess whether we are having an impact or not.” 

Insless said the state’s professional and collegiate sporting events, which have more rigorous testing  and hygiene requirements, will not be restricted; and that local control for K-12 schools will remain. 

He added that there is growing evidence that schools are able to bring back younger students with strict face-covering and physical-distancing requirements without notable spikes in COVID-19 transmissions. 

“There is light at the end of this tunnel. We will continue to fight, adapt and persevere. It may be months before we’re totally out of the clear, but medical advances are putting us closer to the goal of restoring all activities eventually. For now, we have to keep everyone’s interests in mind and take steps that protect all Washingtonians,” Inslee said on Sunday.

Governor: limiting unmasked interactions will help avoid more, longer restrictions

The governor added that indoor gatherings have been one of the biggest factors in the recent spikes of COVID-19 transmission. 

“Probably the most dangerous place in the state is in our own homes — in our living rooms, at our dining room tables, where we love to socialize,” Inslee said Sunday.

He added that, if people can severely limit their unmasked interactions with people outside their own households, state officials will likely not have to enforce more or longer restrictions on businesses. 

“We had two choices … one was to do what we did in March (with more extensive business closures),” Inslee said. “We decided to not go down that route.”
Instead, he said, to curb what is being described as a “fall surge” in COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths, state officials decided to close businesses where — by necessity, Inslee added — patrons had to have unmasked transactions, such as restaurants, bars and gyms. 

“By just dealing with that type of environment, we felt we had a reasonable chance of reducing this transmission,” Inslee said Sunday. “We hope it succeeds. If it doesn’t, we’ll have to look at other measures.” 

Asked why he had loosened restrictions at restaurants, bars and gyms in October just to close those businesses again five weeks later, Inslee said “COVID-19 is a slippery beast” and that the state had been in a much better position five weeks ago. 

“A month and a half ago, we were in a relatively good position,” Inslee said Sunday. “We were concerned about a fall surge but hoped it wouldn’t happen. Well, it has happened. Other states have not been proactive (and are experiencing at-capacity hospitals and having to improvise for morgues to accommodate the increased number of deaths). We’ve decided to take early action, and it was a difficult decision, believe me.” 

The state plans to help mitigate the financial impacts on the small businesses included in the most recent set of restrictions and closures by providing $50 million from Washington’s portion of the federal COVID-relief CARES Act passed by Congress in March for grants and small loans. 

“We understand that this is both an economic and a public health crisis. We do not take lightly the impact these restrictions will have on local businesses, many of which have already had a very difficult year. You are not alone, and we will continue to provide supports,” Inslee said.

The governor said state leaders would provide more information about the resources for small businesses and unemployed workers in the coming days, and added that he hoped the federal government would come together to pass a federal COVID-relief bill.  

Hospitalizations increasing throughout state

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan also spoke Sunday during the governor’s press conference, and applauded Seattle residents for doing such a good job following COVID-19 preventions.
“I want to call out Seattle residents and businesses for taking this (pandemic) so seriously,” Durkan said. “Seattle has the lowest hospitalization rates per capita and the lowest death numbers (among large U.S. cities). We know what happens if we don’t change the trajectory. We know there are cities like El Paso (Texas) where they have 10 refrigeration trucks (acting as morgues) and there have been 150 deaths since Nov. 1. We all witnessed overwhelmed health care workers at hospitals this spring and summer. They are our first and last defense. And we owe it to them and to our communities to take these steps.” 

Durkan said even Seattle is not immune to the COVID-19 increases seen throughout Washington and the country over the past two weeks. 

Every city and county is seeing a rise,” she said. “In Seattle, 20 percent of the total cases are from just the last two weeks. … This virus is surging everywhere.” 

Inslee added that the rapid rise in rates was something state leaders had hoped they could avoid this fall. 

“Four weeks ago, we were in a relatively stable position and there was good reason to hope this surge would not be something catastrophic,” Inslee said. “And then, boom, it just hit us like a ton of bricks. Four weeks ago our daily (case count was in the 600s), now it’s 2,200.” 

Inslee added that he knew Washingtonians would be challenged by the restrictions, especially as we head into the holiday season, but urged every resident to do their part to help flatten the curve again and avoid meeting with non-household members, without face coverings, during the next four weeks.
“We know that for every family out there, the coming weeks are going to be so difficult,” Inslee said. “It is a time when we are used to being together and now we must be apart. This virus is unrelenting and our efforts to beat it must be just as unrelenting.” 

This is a breaking news story. Look for more information in this week’s Post-Record, which publishes on Thursday, Nov. 19.