Variance Map

A list of Washington state counties eligible to fast-track reopening of their economies got bigger on Tuesday, May 19, as Gov. Jay Inslee announced 10 more — including Thurston County — would have a chance for approval under extended criteria.

During a press conference, the governor announced additional counties could apply for a variance allowing for movement into the second phase of his “Safe Start Washington” plan before June 1, the current date planned for a statewide shift after restrictions were put in place to stop the spread of COVID-19. Lewis, Clark, Spokane, Adams, Mason, Clallam, Kitsap, Island and San Juan counties were also added to the list.

The new criteria requires counties to have less than 10 new cases per 100,000 of population of residents in a 14-day span, which Inslee said is consistent with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Ten counties had previously received approval for a variance, with most in Eastern Washington but also including Skamania and Wahkiakum counties. Jefferson and Grays Harbor counties were also eligible prior but had not applied for a variance, Inslee said, bringing the total eligible or approved counties to 22, which represented about 30 percent of Washington state’s population.

The second phase of “Safe Start Washington” allows for a number of restrictions eased, including allowances of outdoor recreation for groups of individuals of five or fewer who do not reside in the same household. The phase also opens up a number of industries, including manufacturing, additional construction phases, in-home services like house cleaning and nannies, hair and nail salons, real estate, restricted retail and restaurants at 50 percent capacity with no bar-area seating and parties no larger than five.

The governor asked that activities remain local, noting worry from some counties opening up about an influx of people coming from outside their boundaries to take advantage of eased restrictions.

“It’s really time to remain close-to-home,” Inslee remarked.

Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said the process for additional counties was “essentially the same” as what was required for the first round of applications. He explained that the county’s designated health officer could make the recommendation to the county board of health on whether or not to apply for a variance, which could include all of the allowances or a subset of activities in the Safe Start Washington.

The local board of health can then move forward with their own recommendation to the county commissioners or councilors, who then would make the final decision to accept or deny the recommendation, Wiesman explained.

As part of criteria the health secretary said that local hospitals would also need to be engaged in the process, being required to state they had at least 20-percent surge capacity and a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) in the event of an uptick of COVID-19. Hospitals would be required to report their PPE stocks and surge capacity daily, Wiesman said.

Local health departments would be required to report testing capacity in their jurisdictions including access, Wiesman said, as well as abilities to support positive cases after diagnosis and conduct contact tracing to identify potential exposure.

Part of the application must also address the ability to house those confirmed with COVID-19 during self-isolation in the event they are in a household with an immunocompromised person or are experiencing homelessness, he added, which would need to be offered without charge to the individual.

Local health departments would also be required to demonstrate their ability to conduct outbreak investigations, Wiesman added, should it be in a long-term care facility or a workplace.

“This really is a community effort,” Wiesman remarked. The final decision on accepting an application would be at the discretion of his department, he added.

Inslee said that the additional eligibility was good news, but cautioned against complacency in the wake of continued disease response.

“This is really something we ought to feel good about in the State of Washington,” Inslee said about the increase of variances, “the ability of people to be going back to work … going back to restaurants, after this most difficult time of economic anxiety and social distress.”

“We have to still recognize that we’ve made progress, but we are just so far from being out of the woods,” Inslee added. He mentioned the recent loss of Annie Glenn, wife of astronaut and U.S. Senator John Glenn, who was the first person he knew personally who died after a COVID-19 diagnosis.

“The bottom line is we still live in the era of COVID-19,” Inslee remarked.

First round of small business grants announced

The governor also announced the first round of grants to just more than 500 recipient small businesses across the state. The grants of up to $10,000 per business were part of $10 million in relief that could be used for rent, utilities, inventory or other non-payroll operating expenses, Inslee said.

“For many of them, we hope this is a bridge to get them on the other side of this crisis,” Inslee said.

Washington State Secretary of Commerce Lisa Brown thanked local economic development agencies across the state for helping to determine successful applicants.

“We know this isn’t enough,” Brown said about the grants, adding her department would be continuing to find additional resources at the federal and state levels, local governments and private philanthropy.

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