This editorial was published by the Columbian of Vancouver.
As Washington officials slowly move to reopen the economy, there is bound to be some confusion. Unprecedented situations inevitably lead to trial and error, regardless of how much thought and planning goes into them.
After six weeks of an extensive business shutdown throughout Washington in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Gov. Jay Inslee moved the state into Phase 1 of a measured reopening. Many outdoor activities were allowed to resume, and some businesses were allowed to reopen with social-distancing guidelines in place.
Moving forward — hopefully to Phase 2 and beyond — it will be essential for state and local leaders to clearly communicate with the public and to track the continued spread of the disease. It seems inevitable that increased activity will lead to an increase of COVID-19 cases, but Washington effectively flattened the curve of the virus from the start of the pandemic and the goal now is to keep that momentum.
Despite some well-publicized protests against stay-at-home orders, a vast majority of Washington residents have responsibly followed the recommendations of their elected officials. Maintaining that cooperation will require an informed public, and the governor’s office has established several avenues for communication.
One is a risk-assessment dashboard on the website of the governor’s office. This shows how Washington is faring on the key metrics of disease activity; testing capacity and availability; case and contact investigations; risk to vulnerable populations; and health care system readiness.
As part of the Safe Start program, the state also provides online forums for business and work inquiries, information for businesses and workers and updates about what is open and what is closed.
The plan is for each phase of the reopening to last three weeks — barring an extreme jump in the number of infections. With the coronavirus typically having an incubation period of two weeks, the three-week period will give officials time to assess the impact of each phase and react to unexpected changes.
John Wiesman from the state’s Department of Health said: “We will look at the data to see if we’re on track. If the numbers go down, we will consider earlier, but we’re not anticipating that to be the case.” David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, added, “Built into this is the assumption we can ramp down if we need to.”
One of the most important aspects of the plan is the possibility for rural counties to reopen more quickly if they have gone 21 days without a new confirmed case of coronavirus. It would not make sense for Garfield County’s 2,225 residents to be beholden to the same guidelines as King County’s 2.2 million. But that also has led to confusion about which standards must be met for larger counties to move forward.
Accompanying that confusion is understandable frustration from the public. From early March through last week, more than $2 billion in unemployment benefits had been paid by the state to more than 500,000 Washington residents.
People are eager to return to work, but that presents a bit of a Catch-22. Reopening a business that serves the public will be pointless if customers do not have enough confidence in safety measures to visit the business.
Because of that, a cautious reopening is necessary — as is patience on the part of the public. As Inslee said: “If we abandon our efforts, this beast is going to get off the floor and bite us back.”