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Inslee issues restrictions on restaurants, home gatherings

by CHARLES H. FEATHERSTONE
Staff Writer | November 16, 2020 1:05 AM

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee announced a series of new restrictions Sunday morning, including closing all restaurants to indoor dining and restrictions on indoor gatherings, in an attempt to deal with what state officials are saying is a rapid rise in COVID-19 cases statewide.

Speaking during a 90-minute press conference that included questions from the media, Inslee said Sunday, Nov. 15, was “the most dangerous public health day” in the state since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in March and even since the great influenza pandemic in 1918, more than a century ago.

If the rapid rise in COVID-19 cases, which have doubled to more than 2,000 new cases reported daily in the last two weeks, is not checked, the governor said the pandemic will wreck the state’s economy, overburden hospitals, and lead to “untold numbers of deaths.”

“We will not allow these things to happen,” Inslee said. “So the time has come to reinstate some of the restrictions on activities statewide to preserve our well-being and to save lives.”

Until Dec. 14, the governor ordered restaurants and bars closed for indoor service, limited outdoor gatherings to five people, reduced in-store capacity at all retail outlets — including grocery stores — to 25%, and limited religious services to 25% of capacity “or 200 people, whichever is less,” as well as banning choir, band or ensemble singing as well.

“Solo singing is allowed under this plan,” he said.

Perhaps most controversially, Inslee banned indoor private gatherings — including large family gatherings — “with people from outside your home” unless they have been quarantined for 14 days, or seven days with a negative COVID-19 test 48 hours prior to the gathering.

However, the governor said he hoped the temporary ban would encourage people to do the right thing, and that no one should expect a state trooper “to come in your door if you have a big Thanksgiving dinner.”

Most of the restrictions will come into effect at a minute before midnight on Monday, Nov. 16. However, the restrictions on inside dining at restaurants will come into effect on Wednesday, Nov. 18, just after midnight.

Inslee, along with State Public Health Officer Kathy Lofy, said the purpose of the new restrictions was to prevent the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus indoors in close proximity with others, where people are most susceptible to being infected.

“We now know that this virus can also spread through small droplets called aerosols that are expelled through our mouths when we talk, cough, sneeze and sing, and can linger in the air,” Lofy said.

Restaurants were targeted because they are places where people who aren’t related to each other spend significant time unmasked in close quarters, both Inslee and Lofy said. In places where strict precautions are taken and masks are worn constantly, like schools and even grocery stores, the governor said the incidence of spread is significantly less.

Inslee said he understood that the new restrictions will hit a number of Washington businesses and their employees hard. The governor said he has $50 million in aid given to the state last spring as part of the U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act that is going to be targeted as additional grants and loans to help businesses across the state, money the governor hopes to get out before the end of the year.

“We know this is not enough, and it won’t alleviate all of the economic hardship, not by a long shot,” he said. “But it’s what we’ve been able to do.”

Inslee said it was important the federal government do a part too, and said Congress should reinstate both higher unemployment benefits for those made jobless by the COVID-19 response and additional aid for struggling small businesses.

However, if Congress does not act, Inslee said his office is “looking at some alternatives,” though he did not say what those might be.

Finally, Inslee said that while the new restrictions are only scheduled to last for a month, state leaders and health officials expect it will take several weeks at least before any improvement in the rate of COVID-19 cases reported daily becomes obvious.

However, he noted that residents across the state have acted before to limit the spread of the pandemic.

“This is not forever, this is only for now,” Inslee said. “A vaccine is on the way; we need to hold the pandemic down until the cavalry arrives.”

Charles H. Featherstone can be reached at cfeatherstone@columbiabasinherald.com.