Wednesday, just after midnight, months of COVID-19 crisis restrictions on gathering and business were lifted in Seattle and across Washington but the milestone, as with most key moments during this pandemic, comes with plenty of uncertainty and warnings even as 73% of those 12 and over in Central Seattle have completed the vaccination process.
Congratulations, citizen, you’ve made it to the great reopening of 2021. Now, be careful:
Effective 12:01 AM on June 30, all industry sectors previously covered by guidance in the Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery or the Safe Start Reopening Plan may return to usual capacity and operations, with limited exceptions for large indoor events (any event with more than 10,000 simultaneous participants in an indoor, enclosed space.)
- Vaccine verification/negative testing: Recommended but not required for large indoor and outdoor events
- Capacity limitations: No restrictions in restaurants, bars, stores, businesses, theaters etc. (except large indoor events)
- Physical distancing: No requirements
- Facial coverings: Not required for vaccinated individuals, unless required by individual business
- Travelers: Follow CDC recommendations
Capitol Hill shops, restaurants, bars, and more are now free to open at full capacity. Late night service can return along with the return of 2 AM last call if you can still stay up that late. Mask mandates — believe it or not, Washington didn’t put its statewide requirements into place until late June 2020 — are lifted.
Some key restrictions remain. Large, indoor events of more than 10,000 people will remain restricted and schools and childcare facilities “will continue to have some facial coverings and physical distancing requirements.” Public transit is returning to full capacity though some routes shutdown due to the pandemic have not been fully restored. “Passengers still must wear masks on transit and at indoor transit facilities in compliance with the federal Transportation Security Administration mandate,” Sound Transit reminds. “Passengers also must continue to maintain a six-foot distance from bus drivers, except when paying fare.”
King County’s latest vaccination totals, trends for positive cases, hospitalizations, and deaths
Gov. Jay Inslee will spend Wednesday and Thursday at “community-led celebrations to acknowledge and celebrate end to current COVID restrictions” in Tacoma, Spokane, and Seattle to mark the milestone “with community and business leaders, elected officials and Washington heroes who helped us through the COVID pandemic.”
On Capitol Hill, there have already been poignant returns to normalcy as Pride weekend crowds in the neighborhood’s Pike/Pine nightlife district spilled into the streets. Thursday, Neumos will burst into life again after more than a year of darkness as its stage hosts its first live show with a full capacity crowd as Seattle’s Spirit Award is scheduled to perform.
But officials are urging caution. In King County, health officials describe the situation as “two truths” —
Truth 1: The State of Washington is lifting restrictions because the current levels of COVID-19 are low enough overall – largely due to vaccination – that the risk of outbreaks, hospitalizations and deaths has fallen dramatically.
Truth 2: COVID-19 is still here, and more contagious variants are spreading locally in King County and nationally. Some of these newer variants are also more likely to lead to hospitalization if you are unvaccinated.
People are still getting sick. King County over the past two weeks has continued to tally a rate of around 47 people per 100,000 testing positive for the virus. That number is well below the winter’s peaks but shows that the pandemic hasn’t ended. The Seattle Times reports that the dangerous delta variant that has forced Los Angeles County to restore its mask mandate isn’t yet prevalent here. “As of last week, Public Health – Seattle & King County’ variant tracking showed alpha is the variant most widely circulating, accounting for 62% of all variants of concern, followed by gamma at 12%. Delta registered at nearly 4% of variants sequenced,” the times reports.
County hospitalizations and deaths, meanwhile, have continued but are considered rare for those who have been vaccinated. In King County, 1,657 people have died from COVID-19 complications since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
State officials say that business owners are free to continue to require masks for workers and for patrons while reminding employers to “meet their obligations to provide a safe and healthy workplace.”
The reopening comes amid an economic crisis spawned by the pandemic and a flood of millions in federal aid for the city now earmarked for housing and homelessness, ‘direct cash assistance,’ small biz support, and cash for Stay Healthy Streets. To help the city’s core recover more quickly, Mayor Jenny Durkan is proposing loosening land use restrictions downtown, in Belltown, and in Pioneer Square, to fill empty retail and commercial spaces with “new options for permitted businesses” including food processing, horticultural operations, and crafts manufacturing. Under the proposal, the city would allow permit applications for new businesses to “provide a wider range of activities and services,” including medical offices, gyms, art installations, and bike parking. “Businesses that received a permit and invested in a new storefront under this temporary ordinance could remain indefinitely, but they would not be able to expand their footprint in future years,” a statement on the mayor’s proposal reads.
On Capitol Hill, it’s not clear yet just how devastating COVID-19 closures have been for the commercial real estate market with many small businesses in limbo through the periods of restrictions. As many gear back up for reopening and shift back to in-person service after months of closures or takeout-only business, they’ll need to weigh the opportunities of returning to “normal” business.
It will be a dilemma for some. Mike Leifur of Broadway bar Bait Shop talked to KUOW about the challenge of reopening amid lifted economic restrictions and ongoing risks from the virus:
He said he thinks they’ll open up at full-capacity early next week, but he wants to get the lay of the land first.
They’ve made a lot of changes in the past 15 months. In early June of 2020, the bar was just opening up outdoor seating and to-go options. Now, 25 people can be inside.
Come next week, Leifur said he hopes the bar can be full of people, but that people are acting responsibly.
“Covid’s not just gone,” he said.
Other challenges for Capitol Hill business owners aren’t new but have been sharpened by the pandemic. “NOW HIRING COOKS — $1000 Bonus,” reads a new banner in the window of Capitol HIll’s Six Arms, a Seattle outpost in the sprawling Pacific Northwest McMenamins chain. CHS has reported in recent years about the challenge of finding cooks and kitchen workers in a city with affordability issues and in a competitive hiring environment rich with opportunities. Emerging from months of slowdowns and shutterings means gathering up a new team as hundreds of other venues are also hiring.
There is also the uncertainty of customer behavior. This week, with the spread of the virus at some of its lowest rates since the start of the pandemic, sitting at a bar with no mask — especially after a cocktail or two — might feel comfortable. But with thousands still not fully vaccinated or choosing to remain unvaccinated, there remains potential for new flareups.
“As we transition away from this phase of government mandates, everyone should understand that when we are in indoor spaces, there will be some risk,” Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health Seattle and King County, said in a statement on the reopening. “Each of us will need to be comfortable with the level of risk we are willing to take. Most vaccinated people will be at very low risk. But there are some people who could not be vaccinated yet or remain at risk for other reasons. So, it will be important to understand your level of personal risk, the risk to others, and the overall risk in the community – and take steps to protect yourself and the people around you.”
Dr. Duchin’s advice? Get vaccinated and find ways to help others get their shots. Keep your masks at a ready. Improve indoor air ventilation and filtration and seek out venues that are working to address the risk. Choose outdoors over indoors when you can. And get tested. The great reopening has arrived — but COVID-19 hasn’t gone away.
You can find the complete guidance from King County on the reopening here.
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