Washington State to Restrict Gatherings of More Than 250 People
OLYMPIA, Wash. – In the most drastic move yet to try to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is expected Wednesday to restrict gatherings of more than 250 people in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, a move aimed at sports, concerts and other cultural events.
The measure will be announced during a Seattle news conference, according to a source involved in conversations with the governor’s office but who has not been cleared to discuss the issue. The measure would not affect retail stores, according to the source.
The restriction applies to large public gatherings such as baseball games, concerts and cultural events, another source told The Times.
Chris Reykdal, Washington’s superintendent of public instruction, said Tuesday evening he doesn’t expect Inslee’s announcement to shut down public schools.
“We don’t have any indication at all that he’s closing schools tomorrow,” said Reykdal.
But Reykdal added that people shouldn’t be surprised if Inslee discusses the possibility of preparing for schools to close as the numbers of cases grow, saying, “These are trying times.”
So far, more than 115 public and private schools across Washington have shut down for at least a day because of coronavirus concerns.
At Wednesday’s news conference, Inslee, who recently declared a state of emergency, will be joined by the mayors of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma and executives for King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.
Initially the prohibition would be imposed only in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, as first reported by The Herald of Everett. The largest concentrations of confirmed coronavirus cases are in King and Snohomish counties.
Many school districts, including Seattle Public Schools, already have canceled trips, assemblies and other large-scale events. The district hasn’t called off sporting events, writing on its website that the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association (WIAA) “will make the final determination on athletics.”
School districts don’t have to wait for the WIAA. They can and already have called off athletic events. Edmonds, for example, announced this month it was cancelling athletic events through April 12.
Inslee’s announcement comes as the Seattle Mariners prepare to open their season March 26 against the Texas Rangers at T-Mobile Park. Reached by phone Tuesday night, Tim Hevly, the Mariners’ vice president of communications, said the organization wouldn’t comment before Inslee’s news conference.
Major League Baseball sources said contingency plans include having the Mariners remain in Arizona, where they are in spring training, and playing their opening homestand there.
The homestand includes a four-game series against the Rangers and three against the Minnesota Twins. Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players’ Association would have input in the decision to move the games.
More immediately, the University of Washington softball team plays at home Thursday night against the U.S. national team, and the Seattle Dragons XFL team plays Sunday against the Los Angeles Wildcats at CenturyLink Field.
A Dragons official declined to comment Tuesday night and said the team will make an announcement Wednesday. The Dragons’ most recent home game, on Feb. 22, drew more than 22,000 people. A part-time stadium worker at that game recently tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
Officials with UW, the Seattle Sounders and Seattle Mariners also declined to comment Tuesday night.
The Sounders’ next game at CenturyLink Field is scheduled for March 21. They played visiting Columbus on Saturday night amid coronavirus concerns, in front of an announced crowd of 33,080. It was their lowest-attended game since 2009.
Jennifer Zeyl, artistic director of Intiman Theatre, which has ended its season and doesn’t have any immediate productions scheduled, said Tuesday night that she considers the move sensible.
“There’s not a way to contain things unless we contain them,” Zeyl said. “There’s an enormous amount of worry in my heart about these canceled gigs and engagements for artists. But the people I’m most concerned about are the medically fragile and unhoused.”
Major events in the area already have been postponed, such as Emerald City Comic Con, originally scheduled for March 12-15 at Washington State Convention Center. The event draws around 100,000 people annually. Pearl Jam announced Monday it would postpone the North American leg of its tour, citing the risks of convening large gatherings. With the announcement, Pearl Jam became the largest American band to postpone an entire run of shows in the United States.
Metropolitan King County Council member Rod Dembowski said Tuesday night that he and his colleagues had not received a briefing about Inslee’s planned action.
He said he was deferring to public health officials, the governor and county executives who were making the calls. “It seems like a reasonable step to me,” he said.
It’s important to make sure people’s civil liberties are respected, Dembowski said, but “we’ve got to balance that against this incredible public health crisis.”
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Seattle, would not confirm Inslee’s plans. But she said she expected the number of confirmed cases to rise exponentially in the coming days.
“It is very important that we move to mitigation, from containment to mitigation,” Jayapal said, “where we really encourage people to stay home.”
Ever since the outbreak escalated, Inslee and public health officials have discussed the idea of “social distancing” in order to curb the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
State health Secretary John Wiesman told state lawmakers March 2 his agency would consider such measures, canceling or postponing large public events, putting in place travel restrictions or school closures.
Inslee on Tuesday also declared new restrictions on long-term care centers, such as nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Many of the deaths attributed to COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus, have been linked to nursing homes, particularly Life Care Center of Kirkland.
The measures — which will remain in effect through April 9 — limit long-term care residents to one visitor per day, excluding end-of-life situations.
Visitors being screened must be asked whether they have had contact with someone diagnosed with COVID-19 and if they have symptoms, including a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher, coughing or difficulty breathing. Staff must also be screened at the beginning of each shift.
The new restrictions will apply to about 55,000 residents in places like nursing homes or assisted-living facilities, said Cheryl Strange, secretary of the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS).
The screening also will apply to workers — such as doctors and therapists — who aren’t staff but enter facilities to see residents, according to Chris Wright, a spokesman for DSHS.
By Tuesday evening, health officials had identified at least 267 confirmed cases across 10 counties of COVID-19, and 24 related deaths.
King County had 190 cases and 22 coronavirus fatalities, according to state numbers, of which 19 deaths were associated with Life Care Center of Kirkland. Snohomish County had 54 confirmed cases.
Public Health — Seattle & King County said nine other nursing homes have staff or residents who have tested positive.
Life Care Center of Kirkland on Tuesday reported 55 positive cases of COVID-19 among its residents, which include 21 who are still at Life Care and the rest who have been hospitalized.
Twelve tests came back negative and four were inconclusive. Life Care is awaiting 12 more results.
Four residents were taken to a hospital between Monday and Tuesday afternoons, media liaison Timothy Killian said.
Inslee in recent days has touted an increase in testing capabilities, from the state’s public health facility to testing by the University of Washington and commercial labs.
But government officials Tuesday couldn’t explain why all the staff at Life Care Center had not been tested.
A spokeswoman for Inslee’s office referred questions about tests at Life Care to Strange, the DSHS secretary. Strange referred question to the state Department of Health, which didn’t respond Tuesday.
Public health officials and Inslee warned about potentially-steep increases in COVID-19 cases and related deaths if the virus isn’t checked in the coming days and weeks. Inslee has cited genetic modeling by University of Washington suggesting that there could be 1,000 cases in the state right now, a number that could double roughly every week.
Seattle Times staffers Paul Barrett, Dahlia Bazzaz, Daniel Beekman, Christine Clarridge, Paige Cornwell, Ryan Divish, David Gutman, Alex Iniguez, Nathan Joyce, Lewis Kamb, Brendan Kiley, Sean Quinton, Nina Shapiro and Elise Takahama contributed to this report.
©2020 The Seattle Times
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