Inslee's Relaxed COVID-19 Requirements Probably Won't Help Yakima County Avoid Return to Phase 2

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Gov. Jay Inslee on Friday relaxed requirements for counties to remain in Phase 3 of the state's COVID-19 reopening plan, but Yakima County still fails to meet those standards and is expected to be moved back to Phase 2 next week.

Inslee will announce Monday which counties failed to meet the standards for new COVID cases and new COVID hospitalizations. When he moved the entire state to Phase 3 last month, Inslee announced that, to remain there, large counties such as Yakima must keep a 14-day average of new COVID-19 cases below 200 per 100,000 residents, and a seven-day average of new hospitalizations per 100,000 below five. On Friday he changed that, announcing counties only had to hit one of those marks to remain in Phase 3.

"Given the incredible progress on vaccinations and our focus protecting people from severe illness, we believe analyzing and requiring both metrics together is the right approach to make sure we're considering the connection between COVID cases and our medical system and hospitalizations," Inslee said in a news release.

The change is unlikely to matter for Yakima County. According to the state Department of Health's most recent numbers, the county had 213.7 new cases per 100,000 population March 17-30 and 6.3 new hospitalizations per 100,000, meaning it's still failing to meet either metric.

Inslee addressed the state's situation during a Tuesday visit to Yakima's State Fair Park, where the federal government has established a mass vaccination site. Several counties are expected to be moved back to Phase 2 next week.

"We have made substantial progress," he said. "We don't want to give up on the 5-yard line. That is why it is so important that we continue to wear masks in social settings, that we have as much distancing as we can, we avoid unnecessary situations where we cannot wear a mask, and, most importantly, get the vaccine.

"This is a critical moment. We want to win that race. The more people that wear the mask and get the vaccine as soon as they can, the sooner we are going to win that race. Yakima County was kind of the epicenter of this, we had the most people who were sick when we started, and we don't want to see that again. That's why we are opening up this site."

Health care workers have noticed a spike in local COVID-19 activity lately, something borne out by daily case counts. But members of the local business community have pushed back at the idea that increased restrictions are the answer.

'Just not doable anymore'

In Phase 2 of the Inslee's Healthy Washington Roadmap to Recovery Plan, the state allows 25% occupancy for gyms, performance venues, movie theaters and indoor dining at restaurants. In Phase 3, that capacity limit is increased to 50% and limited attendance is allowed at sporting events. The difference to a business is huge, said Verlyn Best, president and CEO of the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce.

"Our citizens are suffering immensely," she said. "Phase 2? That's 25% open. That means 75% closed. ... It's almost like you're punishing businesses for people not taking personal responsibility. Businesses are doing everything they need to do."

If Yakima County is indeed moved back to Phase 2, "people are going to lose their minds," Best said. She'll help them comply with the restrictions as best as she can, but she also won't be surprised if some local businesses defy them.

"Civil disobedience," she said. "At some point, you've got to."

That's the difficult spot Oscar Zapien is in. The co-owner of The Tap, a self-serve downtown Yakima taproom offering beer, wine and cider, Zapien said he can't make it on 25% capacity. Until now he's "done everything the state and county have asked us to do," he said, but he's at a breaking point.

"We're not against being safe," he said. "But I've got a wife, I've got kids and I've got a mortgage. ... Going back to 25%, it's just not doable anymore."

But flouting the rules can have consequences, including fines in the thousands of dollars.

"That's definitely there — something we obviously are worried about," Zapien said. "We can't afford to be closed, and we can't afford a fine."

Graham Snyder, who owns two downtown Yakima fine-dining restaurants, E.Z Tiger and Cowiche Canyon Kitchen, said his places are stable and established enough to weather a return to Phase 2. But he'll have to cut labor, which means hurting people he cares about and their families. And he feels for his fellow restaurateurs who aren't as able to withstand the hit.

"We've done this dance before, and we're getting pretty good at it," he said. "But you do have to start trimming labor down to a point where economically the whole thing makes sense."

The changing levels of restrictions — from takeout only to outdoor dining only to indoor at 25% capacity then 50% capacity — have also had unexpected effects, Snyder said.

"No one can get anybody to cook right now," he said. "We've been doing this yo-yo thing, so a lot of people I think just decided to bounce from the industry. They needed something more stable. That's why we're not open on Sundays right now."

Even business owners who expect to make it through a regression to Phase 2 recognize how it could hurt the broader business community, said Ty Paxton, co-owner of Single Hill Brewing Company in downtown Yakima.

Single Hill has an expansive outdoor seating area, and the weather's getting better for that. Plus it has pivoted to more canning for retail sales, which has helped over the past year. But indoor-only businesses are going to take a beating, he said.

"I feel for those businesses for sure," Paxton said. "It's extremely difficult. I can hardly imagine what it's like for them."

At the same time, he's holding out hope that the county can get back to Phase 3 sooner rather than later. The state plans to evaluate all counties every three weeks, so it's possible Yakima County's return to Phase 2 could be short-lived

"Obviously I want to keep the numbers down," Paxton said. "It's important to respect the guidelines. Clearly the metrics have shown that social distancing and masking up does work. And we're heading in the right direction with all the vaccination happening."

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