Despite COVID-19 case numbers and hospitalizations being on par with the worst of the pandemic, Skagit County decision-makers aren’t considering broad restrictions on gatherings.
At a workshop Monday, the three county commissioners called for restrictions on indoor gatherings and meetings for county staff but said they don’t feel comfortable applying similar rules to the general public.
“There’s absolutely a balancing act that we have to do in keeping the public safe ... and keeping our economy moving forward,” Commissioner Lisa Janicki said in an interview.
She said everyone knows what the best practices are, and for now the county will watch the case numbers and evaluate the effectiveness of messaging about COVID-19 risk.
Gov. Jay Inslee has set a mandate on masking indoors, and businesses owners are free to set their own capacity restrictions or improve ventilation to reduce the chance of infection for both customers and employees, she said.
“If that freedom to decide is abused, then there is a role for government,” Janicki said.
County Health Officer Howard Leibrand said he’s skeptical that restrictions on gatherings would be effective.
Those who are careful about the virus were likely vaccinated months ago and follow safety protocols including wearing masks and avoiding gatherings, he said. Those who aren’t vaccinated likely wouldn’t abide by gathering restrictions anyway.
“I don’t think there’s a lack of knowledge about this virus,” Leibrand said. “Most everybody who cares a whit is keeping themselves up to date.”
While his personal recommendation is to avoid indoor restaurant dining and gatherings, he said he doesn’t believe an official recommendation from the county would change behavior.
At this point, individuals are measuring their perceived risk of catching COVID-19 with the desire to see friends, go to a restaurant or attend church services, he said.
“The benefit of a gathering is in the mind of the beholder,” Leibrand said. “People want to be able to assess that risk themselves.”
He said on Aug. 20, various county public health leaders discussed asking the state to set gathering restrictions, but in the end opted against doing so.
“There’s a lot of reasons to do that medically, but there is no political will to do that,” Leibrand said.
County Commissioner Ron Wesen said vaccines have been available to all, free of cost, for many months. At this point, if one wants to reduce their risk of being infected while gathering, the vaccine is their best bet.
More than 90% of new COVID-19 cases in Skagit County are among unvaccinated people, which demonstrates the effectiveness of the vaccines.
“Everyone has their own tolerance to the amount of risk they want to take,” Wesen said.
Commissioner Peter Browning said Leibrand is the expert, and he will follow his recommendations.
Browning said he anticipates this spike in cases to be “tall, but narrow.” New infections are high, but with about 56% of all county residents fully vaccinated, the number of vulnerable people is smaller than earlier in the pandemic.