All breweries, wineries and bars in Yakima County can offer outdoor seating, and pools can begin holding lap swims, water safety classes and swimming lessons with a five-person limit, health officials announced.
Retail businesses may increase customer capacity from 15 to 25% with the existing 30-minute shopping limit, and organizations may show drive-up outdoor movies, with restrictions. The additional activities were approved by the state as part of Yakima County’s modified Phase 1 plan for reopening.
The changes will take effect Saturday.
Andre Fresco, executive director of the Yakima Health District, mentioned the changes during the Yakima Health District board of health meeting Wednesday morning. Health district officials have been in deliberations with the state Department of Health this week to ease some restrictions created to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“The plan was always for us to advocate for opportunities to move forward,” Fresco said.
Yakima County moved to a modified Phase 1 on July 3, which allowed outdoor restaurant seating, haircuts and more retail activity. After receiving updated information from the state Department of Health, the health district clarified on July 14 that all taprooms, breweries and wineries not considered restaurants prior to the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t allowed to offer outdoor seating.
Since then, some of the county’s most important numbers related to COVID-19 have continued to improve, including more double-digit rather than triple-digit totals of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases and fewer hospitalizations because of it. Surveys have shown more people are wearing face coverings, which help decrease transmission.
“(This) easing of restrictions (is) based on data. Our deliberate efforts in Yakima County are working. Over the last three weeks, we’ve been showing incredible progress,” Fresco said.
Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer of the health district, stressed that while wineries, breweries and bars can reopen to a point by offering outdoor seating, they still need to follow requirements for proper social distancing and facial coverings, along with other state Department of Health guidelines.
People can only sit with members of their own household. Alcohol service at all establishments must end at 10 p.m.
He noted guidelines for drive-in movies, which limit members of the same family to each car. No concessions are allowed.
And while rules for outdoor spiritual gatherings didn’t change, Ibach clarified that such gatherings must take place under and around open-air tents and canopies, meaning structures without walls.
Pools that are regulated will be allowed to offer lap swimming, water safety classes and swim lessons with a supervisor present. Those options are limited to five people or fewer, with proper social distancing.
Considering the limit of five or fewer people at a time, it’s not economically feasible to open Lions Pool or Franklin Pool in Yakima, city Parks and Recreation Manager Ken Wilkinson said in an email.
“Staffing should be OK for opening Lions Pool when a higher number of people are allowed in the pool,” Wilkinson said.
The change was a surprise for the Yakima Family YMCA. Executive Director Bob Romero said the organization had expected to wait until the county got to Phase 2, but hopes to begin offering lap swimming next week.
“To return and train staff as well as meeting all the other state operational COVID protocols will take a little time. We will target the middle of next week for lap swimming,” Romero said. “People should monitor our Facebook page and our website. When we resume swimming, we will do online lap reservations through our website.”
The YMCA can open by appointment with significant capacity and group size restrictions under Phase 2, he added. The capacity increases to 25% under Phase 3.
How the changes happened
The changes come as a result of improving metrics, which show that efforts on the part of Yakima County residents, businesses and organizations are making a difference, Fresco said. The percentage of people wearing masks remains high and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have dropped.
“This is data that shows our community’s actions have been making a difference,” he said.
The updates fall within Yakima County’s “Roadmap to Recovery” for modified Phase 1, so they weren’t affected by the governor’s pause on moving to new phases, and didn’t require formal approval from county commissioners.
“We’re still living well within that modified Phase 1,” Fresco said.
Dr. Teresa Everson, county health officer, said at its peak, the daily number of people hospitalized was “just over 60.” As of Wednesday afternoon, 26 people were hospitalized, with four intubated. And an anticipated spike in COVID-19 cases after the July 4 holiday didn’t happen.
“We are in a ... much different place than we were at the last board meeting” a month ago, Everson said.
More than 40,000 people in Yakima County have been tested for COVID-19; of those, 9,990 tests were conducted by the National Guard as of Tuesday, Ibach said. Thursday is the last day for the National Guard members who are testing in the county as they’re being reassigned, but other organizations have stepped in to help, with the potential for more.
“They’ve done roughly a quarter of the tests that have been done in Yakima County. We appreciate all the work the National Guard has done for us,” Ibach added.
Testing for COVID-19 remains a high priority, and Everson wants even more testing. “We’d like to see more than 1,000 a day,” she said.
Despite the good news shared during the health board meeting, Yakima County remains a hot spot of COVID-19 cases, officials said. Even with a lower overall positivity rate for COVID-19 tests — from 30% at the peak — the state wants that to be at under 2% to move into another phase, Everson said. The positivity rate for the past week was 13.7%, she added.
“This is not a time to relax. We all need to keep masking in public,” she said. “The social distancing is the piece I think is still hard for folks. We need to stay at home as much as possible.
“When you’re sick, get tested quickly if you have any of those symptoms,” she added.
Lex Talamo of the Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this report.