Updated at 9:45 a.m. Friday: Yakima County is now in Phase 1.5 of the state's reopening plan. Read more here.
Yakima County health officials have submitted a plan to the state to allow more business activity under a modified Phase 1 of the Washington's coronavirus reopening plan.
In an emergency meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday, members of the Yakima Health District board of health approved what is known as the county's "road map to recovery," which outlines plans to move from Phase 1 to what's referred to as Phase 1.5 in Gov. Jay Inslee's four-phase Safe Start plan. Phase 1.5 allows for outdoor restaurant dining, more construction and manufacturing and additional retail activity at limited levels. Hair salons and barber shops could reopen with restrictions.
County commissioners approved the plan in a separate meeting at 6 p.m. Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer for the Yakima Health District, soon sent the plan to state officials.
Officials expected a quick turnaround on the state's response, possibly either late Thursday night or early Friday. Ibach said the health district has already discussed the plan with state officials. State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy reviewed it late Thursday afternoon with her final edits, he said.
“This is a very big move for us,” said Yakima Health District Executive Director Andre Fresco. “This is a good day for Yakima County as we are moving into a new era.”
Guidelines related to Phase 1.5 will be posted on the health district's website, along with the websites of the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce and business associations throughout the county, Ibach said. Health officials have worked with several associations, including the Central Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce.
Health and county officials expect many questions and have prepared accordingly, he said.
"We do have about eight staff members that will be at the office (Friday) just to answer phone calls. We've already had training," Ibach said. "We will have staff (and) we will have additional staff on standby. We do plan on taking the (Fourth of July) off. We will play it by ear on Sunday whether we bring in some staff or not."
Fresco said the state views moving to Phase 1.5 as a containment measure — a way to keep people from traveling to other counties.
"We know that we have people leaving our county," he said. "We want to allow people to have safe opportunities to (pursue) their activities in our county, but again, they should not be doing it in big groups."
How it would work
The plan for Yakima County would allow more construction and manufacturing under Phase 2 parameters. Restaurants could allow outdoor seating with proper distancing, with people allowed to dine with members of their own household only. In store retail would be allowed with 15% capacity with a 30-minute time limit on shopping. Salons, barber shops and other personal care businesses could operate with 25% indoor capacity.
Dog grooming would be allowed with 25% indoor capacity.
No social gatherings would be allowed with people outside the household, with the exception of small behavioral support groups of fewer than five people.
Earlier Thursday, Benton and Franklin counties were approved to move to modified Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan. Washington Secretary of Health John Weisman’s approval took effect at midnight Thursday.
Inslee held a news conference Thursday afternoon and announced that state Department of Health officials would work with Yakima, Benton and Franklin counties — the only counties that remained in Phase 1 — to reopen some business and other activity in hopes of residents staying in those counties for services and thus limiting the potential spread of COVID-19 from those infection hotspots.
Inslee mentioned the greater use of face coverings in noting Yakima County's improved statistics. Weekly surveys of mask wearing in the county are part of its road map to recovery, Fresco said.
Dr. Teresa Everson, the county health officer, highlighted some of the improvements during the health board meeting. The COVID-19 case count has decreased from about 150 a day three weeks ago to about 90 cases a day this week, she said.
"At the peak several weeks ago, we were losing two residents per day" to COVID-19, she said. "Now it's down to one per day. Of course no deaths are acceptable, but we are seeing improvements in that death rate."
The hospitalization rate is also slowly declining, Everson added. All the hard work on masks has made a difference, she said.
"This is not a time to relax, it's time to double down on all of the safety measures we know work," she said. "That's wearing a mask and staying home when you don't have to be out."
Everson said the health district will closely watch hospitalization numbers over the next few weeks. She said case numbers may go up as testing expands.
“If you see more cases, it doesn’t mean we were are failing,” she said, mentioning health officials also watch other metrics, including the percent of cases that are positive.
Dr. Tanny Davenport of Virginia Mason Memorial said Yakima County is still a hot spot for COVID-19 but is doing better. He reiterated that testing is important, and encouraged people to stay home and wait for results if they are tested.
It's especially important that hospitalizations keep decreasing, Ibach said. If they increase, the state will consider a strict lockdown of the county, including closure of all businesses. That's why it's important to "make sure we work together as a community so we can continue to move forward," he added.
Ibach detailed requirements of the county's plan to move safely into Phase 1.5. They include continued efforts related to mask-wearing such as the ongoing awareness campaign and ambitious efforts to distribute masks.
Along with expanding testing to asymptomatic carriers who may be at risk and mobile testing, the health district will also work with law enforcement to provide education to large groups that shouldn't be gathering, Ibach said.
"We know that there are people that continue to meet in groups that are illegal," Fresco said. "We are still a very comprised county ... We still have a very large concern about transmission."
The health district will continue to focus on infection prevention and outbreak response in the agriculture industry through consultation visits and work on investigating outbreaks, he said. That's similar to efforts at long term care facilities, where the health district provides consultation, works with their staffs and completes weekly testing of employees and residents.
Education is key, Ibach said, noting that health district staff will speak with managers at any businesses that are not following guidelines. "It is really important that we have communication," he added.
Among praise from other health district officials and board members, Fresco noted his appreciation of many people working together to move Yakima County beyond Phase 1.
"While we have many (COVID-19) cases here, we are ready to move forward," he said.