Gov. Jay Inslee and state Secretary of Health John Wiesman announced Saturday that, due to "significant rebounds in COVID-19 activity," Washington is putting a pause on approving counties hoping to move to the fourth phase of the governor's reopening plan.
"Rising cases across the state and concerns about continued spread of the COVID virus have made Phase 4, which would essentially mean no restrictions, impossible at this time," according to a statement from the governor's office.
Before the pause, eight counties were eligible to move from the third to fourth phase -- Columbia, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Stevens, Wahkiakum and Whitman.
Counties are allowed to progress to the next phase if they have declining infection levels, adequate supplies of personal protective equipment, space in hospitals, ample testing capacity and a contact tracing system to notify close contacts of infected people.
"Phase 4 would mean a return to normal activity and we can't do that now due to the continued rise in cases across the state," Inslee said in the statement. "We all want to get back to doing all the things we love in Washington during the summer, and fully open our economy, but we aren't there yet. This is an evolving situation and we will continue to make decisions based on the data."
The best thing Washingtonians can do to slow the spread of the coronavirus, Wiesman added in the statement, is to wear facial coverings, maintain social distancing and practice good hygiene. Earlier this week, Inslee announced a statewide order requiring all Washingtonians to wear face coverings when in indoor or outdoor public spaces. The order went into effect Friday.
In a letter Wiesman sent to local and tribal health leaders on Saturday, he wrote that progressing from the third to fourth phase -- a move that reflects big changes in gathering size and occupancy rates -- could further increase the spread of the virus, "even in communities that have very low rates of disease."
"In the next couple of weeks, I will work with Governor Inslee and his team to assess the need for a modified approach for moving beyond Phase 3," Wiesman's letter continued. "I will communicate that decision to you when we have more information. Counties that are currently able to apply to move from Phase 1 or 2 are still able to apply when eligible."
Seattle Times staff reporter Ryan Blethen contributed to this story.