Most COVID-19 restrictions set to lift in Washington Wednesday

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Most of the COVID-19 restrictions that have been in place and modified several times since last spring will be lifted in Washington state Wednesday, meaning restaurants and bars and other businesses can resume full indoor occupancy levels and physical distancing requirements will be lifted.

Since May, all of the state’s 39 counties have been in the third phase of a four-stage reopening plan, with indoor capacity limited at 50%. Now, businesses across the state can resume normal operations.

Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association, said that customer demand is high and that the biggest challenge for restaurants is hiring enough workers.

“I think our restaurants are going to see a boom,” he said at a news conference Tuesday. “People are really excited to be back.”

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee had set the June 30 date for reopening, and the state fell short of an option that would have allowed earlier opening if if 70% of residents age 16 and older had received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine. Even with the creation of lottery incentives with prizes up to $1 million, the statewide vaccination rate for those 16 and up is just over 68%.

Residents age 12-15 have been eligible for vaccination since last month, and more than 37% of that group have initiated vaccination, and about 28% are fully vaccinated.

There have been more than 414,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus another 36,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 5,911 deaths.

“Even though Wednesday marks a new stage in our continued efforts to defeat this pandemic, we still have work to do,” Inslee said in a written statement. “Continued success depends on everyone getting vaccinated and encouraging any loved one who has not yet received this lifesaving vaccine to do so, and quickly.”

There have already been fewer masking requirements since last month, when the state adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that eased most indoor mask-wearing for fully vaccinated people. Masking rules will remain in place at health care settings — like hospitals and doctor’s offices — correctional facilities, homeless shelters and schools, and masks will continue to be required for unvaccinated employees who return to work indoors. And businesses can continue to choose to require masks for their customers, regardless of vaccination status.

Large indoor events of more than 10,000 people, like concerts, will still be restricted to 75% capacity unless the event does vaccination verification prior to entry and all attendees are vaccinated. Those restrictions will be reevaluated on July 31, Inslee’s office said.

Inslee has two days of reopening events scheduled, starting Wednesday, first at Wright Park in Tacoma and then River Square Park in Spokane. On Thursday, he will raise a “Washington Ready” flag on top of the Space Needle in Seattle and will also visit Pike Place Market.