Gov. Jay Inslee's announcement to pause the "Roadmap to Recovery" phase shift has frustrated Pierce County elected officials, who say there shouldn't be a double standard for other counties.
The two-week pause stopped some counties from rolling back to more restrictive phases based on their hospitalization and COVID-19 case rates. The delay means 12 or so counties — including Snohomish and King — remain in Phase 3, said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy director for COVID-19 response at the state Department of Health.
Meanwhile, Pierce County was kicked back to Phase 2 on April 12, where it remains. Phase 2 requires businesses including restaurants, gyms, retail stores and movie theaters to reduce capacity from 50 percent to 25 percent occupancy, among other rules.
"It's turned into political science. Political favoritism is being shown. Our people are frustrated. Our businesses are hurting. I think it hurts public health by losing credibility by doing things like this," Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson told The News Tribune.
King and Snohomish have comparable case and hospitalization rates now to what Pierce had three weeks ago, though Pierce County continued to see increasing case numbers.
Inslee's press secretary, Mike Faulk, said King and Snohomish counties did not drive the governor's decision.
"The reason for the pause is that we are at a place in statewide COVID activity where maybe, just maybe, we can avoid more restrictions in more places if people follow the appropriate phased guidance, continue to get vaccinated and mask up," Faulk said. "It is good news that COVID activity may be at a plateau and it will take all of us to get it going downward."
Phase 3 requires counties to have fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 over a 14-day span.
Pierce County showed 267.9 new COVID-19 cases per 100,000 over two weeks on April 12 when its phase rollback was announced.
King County reported 246.9 cases per 100,000 over a 14-day period on Tuesday and Snohomish County reached 232.8 cases on Monday.
State guidelines require counties to have fewer than five new hospitalizations per 100,000 over one week to remain in Phase 3.
Pierce County had 6.4 new hospitalizations per 100,000 at the time of the rollback.
King reported 6.1 new hospitalizations per 100,000 on Tuesday and Snohomish 6.5 new hospitalizations per 100,000, according to the Roadmap to Recovery metrics.
Elected officials have voiced concerns that the pause does not follow data and science of the metrics.
County Executive Bruce Dammeier, a Republican, expressed frustration.
"There is reason for people to be frustrated, and it feels like the rules are changing, and they aren't benefiting Pierce County," Dammeier told The News Tribune. "I hear every day from businesses and people that are just really on the edge."
During Wednesday's weekly Business Roundtable call hosted by the Economic Development Board of Tacoma-Pierce County, at least two participants expressed their frustrations with the pause.
"To be honest, it's disheartening," said Tom Pierson, president and CEO of the Tacoma-Pierce County Chamber during the call. "We got businesses that are struggling to make it. And we actually asked for a grace period, the last go-round, and were denied that when three counties went to Phase 2."
Pierson, along with Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards and Dammeier sent a letter April 9 to the Governor's Office asking for a pause before the county was rolled back.
That request was denied.
"It feels a little political, to be honest," Pierson said during the call. "My question is, then why doesn't everybody go back to Phase 3? If we're going to do exemptions, we should do it statewide, not targeted towards some areas, and hopefully it's not political, but yet feels political.
"It feels like we're not following the same science and data. Unfortunately, we're going to have to struggle through this and continue to work on vaccines, continue to make sure that we're doing the right things."
Pierce County Council member Ryan Mello (D-Tacoma) feels that data and science should be applied fairly across the state, but he doesn't feel the decision to pause was politically motivated.
"It's fundamentally unfair," Mello said. "I advocate for consistency and treating everyone the same. Follow the data."
Faulk said the governor's decisions are based on the science of the virus.
"With all due respect, Pierce County is still in a much worse position than King County based on the metrics. The frustration is understandable but misplaced," he said.
In the three weeks since Pierce County's rollback, the county COVID-19 cases have failed Phase 2 metrics with 379.1 cases per 100,000 over 14 days and new hospitalizations of 10 per 100,000 as of May 3.
Dammeier said he has discussed the case and hospitalization rates with top hospital officials. Cases and hospital admissions are leveling-off, he said.
"I do not believe that Pierce County is in danger of a really significant outbreak," he said.
Some Democrats feel frustrated by the situation, but not with Inslee.
Woodards told The News Tribune she wished Inslee had invoked a pause prior to Pierce County moving back a phase but said her frustration isn't targeted at Inslee so much as the complexity of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impacts on businesses and the economy.
"(Inslee's) decisions have always been driven by data, and I suspect they will always be driven by data," Woodards said by phone Wednesday.
Woodards added it could be time to take another look at the phase metrics. In Tacoma and Pierce County, there are higher cases and hospital rates, but fewer people are dying.
"Still very scary," Woodards said. "You've got to have a delicate balance."
"I'm hoping that he will think about looking at the metrics and making an additional evaluation," she added.
Democratic Rep. Mari Leavitt represents the 28th Legislative District in the statehouse and is the co-chair of the Pierce County Legislative Delegation. She said she feels as if the impact to Pierce County was not considered three weeks ago.
"It feels a little bit like we were considered differently than other counties. If you look at Spokane, our hospitalizations numbers were a little under 6 when we were moved back, and hospitalizations in Spokane are sitting near 12," she said. "It feels like Pierce County wasn't given the same consideration of damage that others were given."
The Roadmap to Recovery showed Spokane County at 11.9 hospitalizations per 100,000 on Wednesday.
Pierce County Council Chairman Derek Young (D-Gig Harbor) said he understands the frustration of business owners and workers, but he doesn't see it as a politically motivated decision.
"I will say I don't have enough information to weigh in one or the other, but I can see the reason for it," he said of the pause.
He disagrees with the argument by some that Inslee did this to keep his support base in the King and Snohomish counties , pointing out that Pierce County voted for Inslee in last year's gubernatorial race.
Dammeier said he wants to focus on vaccination rates.
"My focus primarily at this point is 100 percent moving forward. How do we get Pierce County to a new and brighter future, which starts with getting everybody who possibly would be willing to be vaccinated in Pierce County vaccinated?" he said.
As Pierce County remains in Phase 2, it also remains an outlier compared with surrounding counties in vaccine administration.
As of Wednesday, 34.63 percent of the county's total population has initiated vaccination, and 25.14 percent are fully vaccinated, compared with 43.65 percent in the state initiating vaccines, and 31.20 percent fully vaccinated, according to state DOH totals. However, JBLM and VA vaccine rates are not fully known, which some officials have noted might be skewing Pierce's totals lower.
The county's vaccination rate looks a bit better when isolated for those who qualify to get the vaccine, anyone age 16 and older.
The state shows Pierce County at 44.27 percent for residents 16 and older initiating vaccination and 32.14 percent fully vaccinated for that same age group.
That compares with the state rate of 54.40 percent statewide for those 16 and over initiating vaccines and 38.88 percent fully vaccinated in that same age group.
Kim Bedier, director of Tacoma Venues & Events for the City of Tacoma, said during the business roundtable call that the continuing restrictions were making it harder for venues like the Tacoma Dome to compete with not just counties that were further along with reopening, but also with other states that had rolled back restrictions completely.
The Dome currently is hosting an ongoing vaccine clinic to help boost the numbers of those vaccinated in the county.
Bedier said that without any firm knowledge of when Phase 4 might be possible, it's difficult for local venues to book "two months, three months, six months, a year in advance, especially in the convention center setting."
"And it's really hard for people to commit to us if we can't commit to them, that we're going to be open and able to accommodate their business. So clearly, we've lost business to states that are open and continue to do that."
She added that "we've had very pointed conversations directly with the Governor's Office trying to describe our business model, trying to tell them for a concert, we need two or three months to ramp up to sell tickets to get the production organized.
"And they just haven't ... been able to get their heads around the fact that while we respect things change and change quickly, we need some commitment to the future so that we can plan to get back to business."