OLYMPIA — Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman counties must tighten COVID-19 restrictions amid rising cases, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Monday.
Those three counties will roll back to the second phase of Inslee's Healthy Washington plan. As part of the rollback, they will have to lower capacity limits for indoor spaces like restaurants and fitness centers to 25% occupancy, down from the current 50% cap.
The increased restrictions will cover more than 1 million Washingtonians, most of them in Pierce County. The changes, which take effect Friday, drew swift condemnation from Republicans.
In a statement announcing the restrictions, Inslee said the state "must continue to do everything we can to sharpen our focus and keep COVID-19 activity down."
"We are so close to the end of the tunnel here — we have made tremendous progress and we must keep our focus," Inslee said, adding later: "These are not punitive actions; they are to save lives and protect public health."
Under the Healthy Washington plan, counties are evaluated under two key metrics: new cases per 100,000 people across 14 days, and new hospitalizations per seven days. Larger counties and smaller counties have different thresholds they must meet for each of those two metrics.
Monday's announcement drew criticism from Pierce County Executive Bruce Dammeier, who questioned the usefulness of the hospitalization metrics.
In an interview, Dammeier said he spoke Monday morning with representatives from the two major hospital systems in the county.
"Why are we failing a metric when they're saying their hospitals are fine,
our health care system is very protected, it has all the capacity we need?" said Dammeier. "And they are assuring me of that."
The executive also criticized state health officials for not getting enough vaccines to Pierce County. Dammeier cited state Department of Health vaccine data showing Pierce County has received fewer doses in proportion to its total population than King County has received.
"If we were vaccinated at the same rate as King County ... I don't know that that would absolutely eliminate our case growth problem," he said. "But we certainly know it would help."
Washington health officials Monday reported 791 new COVID-19 cases and seven new deaths, totaling 5,329 fatalities. As of Monday, 22.25% of state residents have been fully vaccinated against the virus.
Inslee's announcement Monday comes after the governor last week watered down the criteria to judge counties, meaning fewer counties were likely to be demoted.
All 39 Washington counties have spent the past month in the third phase of the Healthy Washington plan. The other 36 counties will remain in that phase for now.
In addition to allowing 50% indoor occupancy, the third phase allowed for the return of some spectators at outdoor events like professional and high school sports, rodeos and motorsports.
This might not change much for the three counties heading back to the second phase. Inslee's office released updated guidance allowing for many of those activities to continue, but with lower capacity limits and tighter restrictions.
For their evaluation, state health officials used the date range between March 20 and April 2 to tally two-week case numbers by county, according to the state Department of Health (DOH) report.
For the seven-day hospital counts, DOH used slightly different dates: March 24 through March 30.
The next scheduled evaluation for counties under the plan will take place May 3.