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OLYMPIA – Gov. Jay Inslee Tuesday evening announced a road map for reopening Washington’s economy that could soon allow the return of some elective surgeries, outdoor recreation and certain construction projects.
In a 5 p.m. televised public address, Inslee didn’t say when the stay-at-home order — scheduled to lift at the end of the day on May 4 — might start to be rolled back. The plan would only move forward, he said, once cases of the new coronavirus have fallen enough that the state is able to manage future outbreaks.
But Inslee said that data on cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, was beginning to look favorable.
If that continues, Inslee said, elective surgeries could begin again soon, as well as some outdoor recreation. Meanwhile, the governor’s office has agreed upon a plan with the construction industry and labor unions, “allowing limited return to construction with safety measures in place,” he said.
“We can modify some of these restrictions in the coming weeks, if the health modeling holds up,” Inslee said. But, “The health of Washingtonians is our top priority.”
The governor has said at least some restrictions are likely to stay in place longer than May 4.
Inslee’s three-part plan includes massive statewide testing, teams of workers performing contact tracing, resources for mental health and homelessness and a phased-in reopening of certain businesses while continuing social distancing.
The plan would make sure the state could quickly tamp down new outbreaks of COVID-19, reopen the economy in phases and help workers and businesses recover from the economic downturn.
The governor has emphasized that his decision to lift temporary restrictions such as the stay-at-home order — which shuttered thousands of businesses and maintained a ban on large gatherings — will be driven by public health data. One of the key indicators will be if the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases continues to trend down over time.
As of Tuesday, there were 12,282 cases of COVOD-19 in Washington, including 682 deaths.
The plan envisions rapid and wide-scale testing across the state, as well as a surge in contact tracing. The state Department of Health (DOH) is working with county public health agencies to create a plan for extensive contact tracing, in which staff track down those who had direct contact with people who test positive for the coronavirus.
Inslee described the 1,500 people being brought on to do contact tracing — a mix of state and local health workers, members of the National Guard and volunteers — as a “rapid response” team. They could start operating by the second week of May, he added.
State officials aren’t saying yet how much it will cost. At a news briefing earlier in the day the governor’s chief of staff, David Postman, only said that Inslee told him to “go big, be aggressive and find people where you can get them.”
To successfully reopen, the state ultimately needs to be able to conduct between 20,000 and 30,000 tests daily for the plan to succeed, Inslee said.
But the state hasn’t been able to conduct more than about 4,000 tests daily, Inslee said, because of a shortage of supplies like test swabs, vials and other items. The governor Tuesday penned a letter to Vice President Mike Pence requesting more help on testing.
Inslee would then reopen the economy in phases, according to the plan, starting with certain industries based on their ability to address public health risks. Lessons from those early reopenings could be applied to other sectors of the economy, according to the plan. Physical distancing — like maintaining 6 feet of distance between people — would be required for businesses opening back up.
That part of the plan also includes economic recovery efforts, including through worker training and small business development.
The third phase of the road map is intended to help communities and people recover in other ways, such as more help for mental-health and substance-abuse services, an increase in food supplies and assistance for homeless people.
Inslee’s remarks on Tuesday come as other states across the country take steps to plan – or actually begin – reopening their economies in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreaks. Georgia is planning on allowing some businesses to reopen on Friday and Tennessee’s governor is expected to lift that state’s stay-at-home order next week.
The governor faces increasing restlessness over the stay-at-home order first announced on March 23, as well as concern over its impact on jobs and the economy amid soaring unemployment claims.
Last week, state Republican legislative leaders released their own plan for reopening the economy.
That proposal didn’t set public health benchmarks, but did highlight some lower-risk industries — like residential construction, some landscapers and auto dealers — that could open back up soon.
On Sunday, as many as 2,500 demonstrators — joined by a handful of GOP state lawmakers — defied the governor’s order and the guidance of public health officials to rally at the Capitol demanding the stay-at-home order be lifted.
Meanwhile, Franklin County Commissioners on Monday voted to defy the stay-home order and declare their county to be open again, according to a report in the Tri-City Herald.
Postman said the commission’s vote cannot reverse a statewide order, and the governor’s office is drafting a letter to the county.
In an interview Tuesday morning, Inslee said he hoped to see updated modeling on what the virus might do in Washington later in the week.
“The virus kind of calls the tune,” Inslee said, “to some degree.”