A1 A1

World photo/Don Seabrook Stretched along the side of Highway 97 north of Orondo on Wednesday, April 15, 2021, a fruit tree orchard will be covered in netting once pollination is through.

Inslee: Washington to lift COVID restrictions by June 30; right now, mask rules eased for vaccinated people (copy)

OLYMPIA — Washington is on course to lift its broad COVID-19 economic restrictions by June 30, if not sooner. And starting immediately, fully vaccinated people will have fewer requirements regarding mask-wearing, and can attend weddings, funerals and sporting events without limits on capacity.

The announcements made Thursday by Gov. Jay Inslee landed just hours after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced a leap toward a return to pre-pandemic life, saying fully vaccinated people could stop wearing masks outdoors in crowds and in most indoor settings.

As he sat down at his conference table in the Capitol, Inslee removed his face mask, a staple worn at public appearances since the end of last June, even when holding virtual news conferences like Thursday’s event. That has been one of the governor’s many efforts this past year as he pleaded, urged and occasionally lectured Washingtonians to follow public-health guidelines throughout the peaks and valleys of case counts and fatalities.

The combined changes now put a post-pandemic reality firmly on the horizon, after more than a year of grief over illnesses and deaths, combined with the economic devastation wrought by the pandemic and restrictions intended to curb the virus.

A full reopening would come sooner if 70% or more of state residents over the age of 16 have gotten at least their first shot before then, said the governor. Currently, 57% of Washingtonians 16 and up have gotten at least one shot, according to Inslee’s office. Inslee credited a recent plateau in the fourth wave of Washington’s cases that has now turned into a decline in virus activity. Meanwhile, increasing numbers of residents are vaccinated and doses for others are readily available.

“We know that vaccines are fundamental to this next chapter of this journey, so we don’t have to rely on social distancing and restrictions,” said Inslee.

“We are confident this can work, but we need everyone to pull on the rope here,” Inslee added. “We don’t want to see this pandemic coming back.”

Washington will also adopt the CDC’s guidelines, Inslee said, and starting immediately, the state is easing restrictions for groups of fully vaccinated people.

The announcements by the CDC and Inslee on masking caught some in the medical community off-guard.

“As somebody who’s been living and breathing COVID for the whole bloody show, this was a big surprise to me — and a good one; a welcome surprise,” said Dr. Paul Pottinger, professor of infectious disease at the University of Washington School of Medicine.

But the transition to using masks less often will take some adjustment, Pottinger said, now that they have become a habit.

“The first change that was hard was to wear a mask. Getting out of a mask is painful too,” Pottinger said, adding that fully vaccinated people should feel free to take this new freedom at their own pace. “That’s fine. There’s no pressure to take off your mask.”

Pottinger added that people with compromised immune systems who are fully vaccinated should consider taking the same precautions as people who remain unvaccinated.

Those weren’t the only announcements on Thursday.

Events like outdoor and indoor sports won’t have limits on the number of attendees who have been vaccinated, Inslee said. Likewise, weddings and funerals will be allowed at full capacity if the attendees have all been vaccinated.

And cruise ships with fewer than 250 passengers will be able to sail if the crew and 95% of passengers have been vaccinated.

Additionally, starting Tuesday and until a full reopening date is set, all of Washington’s 39 counties will be in the third and least-restrictive phase of the governor’s current “Healthy Washington” plan.

Most counties — including Chelan and Douglas — are in the third phase, which allows indoor spaces like stores, venues, restaurants and fitness centers to operate at 50% capacity.

But counties and businesses have faced an uncertain few months as Washington experienced a fourth surge. Just two weeks ago, some counties seeing public-health metrics that would have driven indoor occupancy down to 25% under the Healthy Washington plan.

Meanwhile, a handful of counties — including Pierce — last month moved back to tighter restrictions amid a surge in new coronavirus cases, capping their indoor occupancy at 25%.

In a statement, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers applauded the announcements.

”It’s been a long, hard year of battling the pandemic, and now we can see a bright light at the end of the tunnel,” said Somers in prepared remarks. “The governor’s announcement today just confirms that getting vaccinated will be the quickest way to end the restrictions, fully open up our economy, and get everyone back to work.”

In a statement, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan credited the successes so far in getting vaccine doses to people.

”Our new normal is coming in June, and it’s because of our communitywide commitment to getting vaccinated,” she said in prepared remarks. “The home stretch is here.”

Conservatives have throughout the pandemic chafed at the governor’s broad use of emergency powers and exclusion of Republicans in determining the pandemic response. Thursday’s announcement didn’t bring relief on that end, as the governor said his emergency proclamation would stay in place for now.

State House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said Thursday he would have liked to see the governor cancel the emergency proclamation, though he called Inslee’s announcement overall “a good thing.”

“I think we could have sped up the pace” of reopening, said Wilcox. “And, I’d still like to see the pace speed up.”

The pandemic continues

Despite the success on vaccines — 35% of state residents have been fully vaccinated — the pandemic continues. State health officials Thursday reported 1,505 new coronavirus cases and 12 new deaths, for a total of 5,626 fatalities.

As the vaccination work continues, Inslee announced new incentives to urge people to get shots.

State officials are working with the Association of Washington Business to help local chambers of commerce give gift cards to vaccinated people. Beginning Thursday night, vaccinated people at Seattle Mariners games will get prizes.

And state officials are working with wineries and breweries to see if a free drink could be given to people who have been vaccinated.

”And more ideas are in the works, as well, for our incentive programs,” said Inslee.

Some in Seattle were eager to see the state’s mask requirement adjusted and the governor announce plans for a full reopening.

”It’s really exciting and it’s a little nerve-wracking,” said Nicole Duran, 34, of West Seattle, who has been fully vaccinated for about a week. “A lot of freedom at once.”

The announcement represented a “chapter ending,” Duran said.

”It feels like we made it, which is how I felt after I got my COVID shot. It’s not over, but you lived through it,” Duran said. “Now we can move on to whatever normal is going to be.”

Duran said she keeps a pile of disposable masks at her door, so she never forgets to grab one on the way out.

”The chance to go out and have a drink with a friend, or go have dinner or go to the movies and go to the gym and not have a mask, that’s exciting. I’m looking forward.”

Duran said more than 80% of people in her neighborhood had received at least one dose of vaccine, according to local data.

”I would feel comfortable in my neighborhood going out without a mask, but I don’t know if I’m ready to rip it off right now. It will be something I ease into and judge on a situation-by-situation basis,” Duran said.

Pedro Leite, a 34-year-old software engineer living in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, said he was eager to ditch his masks. Last month, the CDC announced people could remove masks outdoors. Leite said he’s taken to it with glee.

”As soon as I am outdoors, I rip that off my face because I like the clean air in Washington state,” Leite said. “It’s awesome seeing people’s faces and expressions.”

Photo: Close quarters

Wenatchee and WestSide high schools plan in-person graduation ceremonies

WENATCHEE — The Wenatchee School District announced Friday that Wenatchee and WestSide high schools will hold in-person commencement ceremonies for the class of 2021.

The Eastmont School District had not finalized graduation plans as of Friday.

Wenatchee High School graduation is June 4 from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. at the Wenatchee Apple Bowl. Gates open at 7 p.m. WestSide High School graduation June 8 is at 7 p.m. with the gates open at 6 p.m.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, Wenatchee High School and WestSide High School graduation ceremonies will be closed to the general public.

Grads get two guest tickets. Tickets are required to attend. There could be a vaccinated seating section. More details will be available next week.

Graduates and those in attendance will be required to follow health and safety protocols including completing an online health screener and temperature check. Masks must be worn by all in attendance and six-foot social distancing must be maintained.

The graduation ceremonies will be broadcast live on the NCWLIFE Channel, LocalTel Channel 12, Charter Channel 19, and live-streamed on their website ncwlife.com and NCWLIFE.

World photo/Don Seabrook Lakeview Country Club in Soap Lake hosted the North Central Regional Golf Championships Thursday, May 13, 2021. Miles Grossberg, Chelan.

June 30 announcement 'a big moment' for NCW — with a lot of work ahead

WENATCHEE — County commissioners, business owners, and community members are excited about the prospect of a full reopening on June 30 but expect a lot of work ahead as the community begins to slowly unwind from the pandemic.

Shiloh Burgess

“It is a good day,” said Shiloh Burgess, executive director at the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce. “This is a big moment for our communities, for our state. I know our business community is looking forward to being able to operate at full capacity.”

And since Gov. Jay Inslee promised at Thursday’s press conference that the state would fully reopen before June 30 if 70% of eligible people in the state were vaccinated before then, this is a good time for employers to re-engage their employees to get vaccinated, Burgess said.

Some employers have already offered paid time off, bonuses, and a variety of incentives to their employees if they would get vaccinated, according to Burgess.

“Help us get open earlier, that would be great,” Burgess said.

Provided photo 

Kevin Overbay

Chelan County commissioner

The Chelan-Douglas Health District is doing everything to make COVID-19 vaccinations accessible to everyone that wants one, but the choice to get vaccinated remains a personal one, said Kevin Overbay, Chelan County Commissioner.

About 60% of people 16 and older in Chelan County have received the first dose of a two-dose COVID-19 vaccine, the fourth-highest percentage among all counties in the state, according to data from the state Department of Health. In Douglas County, around 52% of people 16 and older have initiated vaccinations, the 12th-best percentage in the state.

Provided photo 

Luke Davies

Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator

Chelan and Douglas counties continue to see solid vaccination numbers from all providers in the area and will likely reach 70% vaccination coverage by June 30, according to Luke Davies, health administrator for the Chelan-Douglas Health District.

Over 70% of people 65 and older living in the two-county region have been vaccinated, and now the health district is working to get between 200 to 300 people vaccinated a day moving forward, Davies said.

The new masking guidance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, however, have frustrated epidemiologists and public health officials across the country due to its confusing messaging, according to Davies.

The new CDC guidelines announced Thursday recommended that fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear a mask in most places, indoors or outdoors.

People are considered fully vaccinated about two weeks after receiving the second shot of a two-dose vaccine or two weeks after a single-dose vaccine.

Davies said that the general message from the CDC is this: COVID-19 vaccines are doing such a good job protecting people and halting transmission that fully vaccinated individuals do not have to wear a mask.

But the challenge with the CDC’s updated guidelines is that it sends mixed signals to people who still need to mask in order to prevent any possible COVID-19 transmission to others, according to Davies.

And although the governor’s office has adopted the new CDC masking guidance, as of Friday the state Department of Health and the Department of Labor and Industries have not issued finalized guidances that align with the CDC.

All businesses should continue to follow Phase 3 guidelines and masking mandates until DOH and L&I provide finalized guidances, Davies said.

“If you’re not vaccinated for whatever reason, personal or other, masking is a good way to prevent the spread of coronavirus to other people and to yourself,” Davies said. “Until we have further guidance coming out, if you don’t want to wear a mask, get vaccinated.”

Overbay and Burgess both said they remain concerned that the governor’s COVID-19 emergency order is still in effect.

“To keep the emergency order in place and to have the ability to roll back at any given time really does not give us a sense that we are past this,” Overbay said.

The state will begin to roll back activities and events if the statewide Intensive Care Unit capacity reaches 90% at any point, according to the governor.

Bryan Cook, Sun Basin Theater vice president, said that he hopes they can open sooner to take advantage of the summer blockbuster season.

Restaurant owners in the area are happy about the announcement but face the difficult prospect of finding new employees.

Marco Ramirez, Alma’s Kitchen co-owner Alma Ramirez, said that they have posted several ads but have had no luck so far securing reliable help.

Burgess said she also heard from all kinds of employers in the area about a difficulty hiring back enough people as capacity expands and restrictions uncoil.

The restaurant is operating with four employees but will need to double that number if it hopes to match its employee count pre-COVID, according to Ramirez. Ramirez said he hopes to hire back up to eight by the end of the year, possibly September.

Thanks to Payback Protection Program loans, the restaurant was able to stay afloat, and at 50% indoor capacity, things were almost normal, said Ramirez. Now with the prospect of expanding to 100% soon, Ramirez and his parents might be able to do more than just break even month to month.

“Only time will tell,” Ramirez said. “If at the end of the year we’re able to catch a decent paycheck, great. We’ll just have to wait out and make sure that we can get back to regular business as soon as possible,” Ramirez said.