Anacortes Mayor Laurie Gere closed her weekly televised COVID-19 briefing Wednesday as she often does — by donning a mask — but not before warning that an increase in cases would stall local economic recovery and a return to life-as-normal.
“The recent rate of new cases makes it unlikely we will meet the governor’s metrics by this Friday, the 26th,” she said in her televised address.
Unfortunately, she was right.
Two days later, Skagit County Public Health Director Jennifer Johnson said the county had 27.1 new cases for every 100,000 residents over the previous 14 days — the bar is set at 25 per 100,000 — and that the county would not ask the state Health Department to move the county to Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase plan to reopen the state’s economy.
That means Skagit County could be in Phase 2 for another two weeks, county Health Officer Howard Leibrand told the Skagit Valley Herald reported. “We’re on the cusp of a big problem again if we can’t turn this around,” he told the Herald.
Leibrand said the increase in local infections is the result of non-essential travel and people gathering in large numbers.
COVID-19, also known as the novel coronavirus, is a severe respiratory disease for which a vaccine has not yet been developed. Some 502 Skagit residents have been diagnosed with COVID-19 since Jan. 21, when the state’s first case was confirmed; 15 people have died. Statewide, the virus has infected 30,855 and killed 1,304.
Nationwide, there have been 2.4 million confirmed cases and 124,325 deaths; worldwide, there have been 9.6 million confirmed cases and 491,128 deaths — more than the number of lives lost in the bubonic, typhus or cholera pandemics of the 1800s and the swine flu pandemic of 2009-10.
Inslee is reopening Washington’s counties in phases in an effort to control the virus’s spread. Each phase eases restrictions on business activity and recreation. He further tightened the hold on the virus Friday by requiring Washingtonians to wear face coverings when in an indoor space or when outdoors and within six feet of others.
Benchmarks by which the state Health Department determines whether a county moves to the next phase:
• No more than 25 new cases for every 100,000 residents.
• Available hospital beds at less than 80% occupancy.
• Adequate testing capacity.
• Contact of 90 percent of cases by phone or in person within 24 hours of receipt of a positive lab test result, and reaching all that person’s contacts within 48 hours of a positive test result.
Being stalled in Phase 2 means groups of people are still limited to five, only essential travel is allowed, worship services are limited to 25% capacity, restaurants and taverns are limited to 50% capacity, and in-store retail purchases are allowed with restrictions.
In Phase 3, outdoor group recreational sports could resume, pools and other recreational facilities could reopen at 50% capacity, restaurants and taverns could accommodate 75% of their capacity, in-person government services could resume, and libraries and museums could reopen.
Phase 3 would also unleash some much-needed economic activity. Skagit County’s unemployment rate was 16.6% in May, the fourth-highest in the state, according to the state Employment Security Department. Skagit County also had the state’s 10th-highest number of first-time unemployment claims the week of June 14-20.
The state unemployment rate was 15.1% in May, according to the state Employment Security Department. The department paid regular unemployment insurance benefits to 715,542 people in May, an increase of 145,195 over the previous month.
The economic slowdown has given a gut-punch to city finances as well. The Anacortes City Council amended the city budget on June 22 to reflect an anticipated $1.6 million shortfall because of the virus-wracked economy.
Gere again encouraged residents on Wednesday to wear masks, wash hands, and keep at least six feet of distance from others when in public.
“The state health officer reports that science is clear: when we use face coverings, we limit the spread of droplets being passed to others when we talk, cough or sneeze,” Gere said. “Wearing a mask is one of the effective things people can do to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. … If a majority of the population wears a mask, we will reduce the spread of COVID.”