MOUNT VERNON — With new COVID-19 cases falling in Skagit County, the county commissioners unanimously approved Friday submitting an application to take the next step in reopening under Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start plan.
Approval would move the county into Phase 2 of the four-part plan that gradually relaxes restrictions on the state’s businesses, letting barber shops, restaurants and retail stores open their doors in a limited capacity.
The move came on the same day the governor announced an easing of restrictions on the counties not yet cleared to move forward. As of Monday, all counties may apply to move forward to the next phase if they meet targets that include having fewer than 25 new cases per 100,000 residents over a two-week period. From May 15-28, the county reported seven new cases.
Jennifer Johnson, director of county Public Health, said her department is working with business owners, ensuring they understand and abide by health and social distancing rules.
“Our goal is that they open and stay open,” she said at a meeting Friday.
If the county’s application is accepted, Johnson said people will be allowed to gather in groups of no more than five — not counting people they live with — up to once per week.
Applications are submitted to the state Secretary of Health for review, Johnson said.
County spokesperson Laura Gelwicks said the county doesn’t yet know how long the state will take to review this application, but said other counties that applied have waited about a day.
Johnson said the county has the testing infrastructure and hospital capacity to tackle a new surge of cases that may come along with reopening.
Johnson said a county of Skagit’s size needs 19 contact tracing staff to meet requirements for Phase 2. Skagit County has had 20 staff members working on this since the early days of the pandemic.
Howard Leibrand, the county’s health officer, said residents will still be expected to wear masks and limit non-essential travel for the foreseeable future.
Residents have learned a lot over the last three months, wearing masks and practicing social distancing to reduce spread of the virus. Those behaviors need to continue through Phase 2, and must exist in some form until there is a vaccine or treatment.
“Do your part,” he said. “Wear your mask to protect others.”
Leibrand raised concerns with religious services, which would be allowed to open at 25% capacity during Phase 2, up to 50 people. This could lead to fairly large gatherings, and he encouraged residents to stay home and watch online if they can, and wear a mask if they attend.
“Don’t attend them in person if you’re particularly vulnerable to the disease,” he said.
Inslee’s plan requires counties to spend at least three weeks in each phase before they can apply to move up again.
Commissioner Ron Wesen said the general public will be expected to take more responsibility for their own health as the county moves toward a full reopening.
“It’s up to you to decide if it’s safe to go in (to the store),” he said.
Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt urged residents to stay vigilant and not to get complacent about safety precautions.