Inslee’s new recovery plan forces six counties to coordinate on Covid-19

It’s back to basics for Washington state businesses as Covid-19 infections rates rise.

Gov. Jay Inslee debuted a new Covid-19 strategy that organizes Washington into eight regions and sets tough targets before restrictions meant to curtail the spread of the virus that causes the disease are loosened.

Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery launched Jan. 11, with all eight regions placed in Phase 1, the most restrictive. It was expected to remain in place until at least Jan. 18. The phases are reviewed and adjusted each Friday.

Benton and Franklin counties are part of the South Central zone together with Yakima, Kittitas, Walla Walla and Columbia counties. The regions are based on Emergency Medical Services regions used for evaluating healthcare services, the governor’s office said.

Regions can move to the less-restrictive Phase 2 by demonstrating a decreasing trend of 10% or more in a two-week rate of infections, a decreasing rate of 10% or more in a two-week rate of new Covid-19 hospitalizations, fewer than 10% of Covid-19 tests returning positive and fewer than 90% of intensive care unit beds occupied.

The state Department of Health released data showing a 4% drop in infections in the South Central region in December but a 12% increase in new hospital admissions. The combination was not enough to move the area out of Phase 1.

“We know that all people in Washington want to move forward as quickly as possible with respect to Covid-19. However, these metrics show that we are just not ready to do so now,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, Washington’s Secretary of Health.

“We have made progress but need to continue to work together to reduce the transmission of Covid-19 across our state.”

“Working together” is the key challenge for the South Central zone, said local business leaders. The Tri-Cities will not emerge from Phase 1 on its own.

Lori Mattson, president and chief executive officer of the Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce, noted the Tri-Cities depends on the other five counties in the zone doing their part.

It is a frustrating situation, she said during a recent Zoom “Coffee with Karl” program with Karl Dye, president of the Tri-City Development Council.

The Mid-Columbia already experienced ups and downs of the phased recovery by lingering in Phase 1 through much of 2020 and then 1.5 before being pushed back to Phase 1 under Inslee’s new plan.

She described a conference call with restaurant operators who had to watch food rot because they could not open as planned. Businesses cannot plan for that kind of uncertainty, she said.

“We’re going to rise and fall now with these other five counties. It’s so beyond our control,” she said, calling on local business organizations to cooperate with counties and cities to work together as a region.

Michael Novakovich, president of Visit Tri-Cities, said the seven South Central counties will pull together.

“We have to work with the surrounding communities,” he said.

He has spoken with his colleagues across county lines on how best to cooperate. He cited consistent messaging around health measures as one way to unite as a region.

“Here we are a tourism agency focused on health care messaging,” he said.

To stay in Phase 2, the regions must maintain a decreasing or flat trend of new infections and hospitalizations, keep hospital ICU occupancy under 90% and fewer than 10% of Covid-19 tests returning positive.

Critics were quick to fault the governor’s new recovery plan, calling it an incomplete map that puts recovery out of reach for struggling small businesses.

Kris Johnson, president of the Association of Washington Business, said businesses do not need a new set of metrics. They need the ability to reopen immediately at a minimum 25% capacity with safety measures.

“We fear this will only make it harder for many communities, employers and families to begin the long process of rebuilding,” he said in a statement that also called on the governor to focus on swift and efficient delivery of vaccines.

The Washington Retail Association too condemned the plan, which limits stores to 25% capacity.

“The plan fails to offer a path to full recovery,” said Renee Sunde, president of the retail group said in a statement.

Under the new plan, all indoor fitness is prohibited. Outdoor entertainment such as zoos, outdoor theaters and concert venues may open with groups limited to 10 at the most. Indoor gatherings and indoor dining are prohibited while retail, worship services, professional and personal services are limited to 25% capacity.

Go to doh.wa.gov for information about the new recovery program.

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