The first steps to reopen Washington’s economy after COVID-19 will be undertaken statewide, Gov. Jay Inslee said, and not on a region-by-region basis despite frustration from some local leaders.
In a conference call with The Columbian’s Editorial Board Thursday, he emphasized that residents in the state’s more rural counties should continue to shelter-in-place even if an outbreak hasn’t been identified in their area.
Officials in some regions — including Clark County — have started to express agitation with the governor’s blanket approach, which they say is more suited to densely packed areas like the Puget Sound.
But social distancing orders are working, Inslee said, and the evidence is “striking and certain” that prematurely removing social distancing restrictions would undo that success.
“We’ve tried to be ahead of the curve, and the way to be ahead of the curve is to prevent transmission before you have cases in your town,” Inslee said. “As time goes on, it may be more possible to go up to a regional approach as things stabilize.”
As the state enters its second month of the governor’s shelter-in-place order, some local officials are growing impatient. Clark County Councilors Eileen Quiring and Gary Medvigy said they want more control over the timeline of reopening the local economy, they said in a meeting of the county’s Board of Health on Wednesday morning. Clark County has 321 identified cases of COVID-19.
“The natives are restless,” Quiring said.
However, Inslee said it’s crucial to get the coronavirus’s R0 (pronounced “R-naught”) number — or the number of people that a single contagious person is likely to infect — down below one, which would indicate that the number of cases is shrinking rather than increasing.
Currently, the state’s R0 figure is hovering around one person, even with extreme social distancing measures in place. Before those restrictions were enacted, a single coronavirus patient in the Puget Sound area was likely to infect 3.8 people (a R0 figure of nearly 4), the governor said, adding that reverting to business as usual would be disastrous.
“I hope that we don’t learn a bitter lesson looking at some of these states that are opening too soon,” Inslee said.
But he hinted that one industry, residential construction, might start back up soon.
Currently the only construction projects allowed to continue are those that provide some public good, including hospitals, schools and multifamily housing. But many private construction projects have been left in the lurch.
Earlier this week, two politicians in Southwest Washington petitioned Inslee to allow for a pilot program that would provide residential construction workers with rapid testing, potentially freeing them up to safely go back to work.
Inslee declined to comment on that specific program, instead saying he planned to discuss the topic of residential construction across the state “in a few hours.”
“I wouldn’t say anything categorical at this point,” he said.
Testing kits still rare
Washington still lacks the number of COVID-19 tests it would need to safely reopen the economy, Inslee said.
“The good news is, we have increased our capability to analyze the testing quite dramatically,” Inslee said. “The problem is we do not have anywhere close to that number of sample kits.”
The physical materials are lacking: swabs and viral transport media. Inslee said he’s pushing the White House to enact the Defense Production Act to ramp up the quantity of testing supplies nationwide.
President Donald Trump announced Sunday that he plans to use the act to increase production of swabs.
State budget to take a hit
Inslee said he doesn’t know exactly how badly the coronavirus will hurt the state’s budget. But it will be “a very, very large hole, in the billions of dollars, and we will have some difficult decisions to make.”
The city of Vancouver is predicting a similar situation on a smaller scale. Officials are expecting to lose out on up to $60 million due to the coronavirus, which would amount to 40 percent of the city’s general fund.
At this point, Inslee said, it’s unclear whether the state will be in a position to help out municipalities like Vancouver financially.
He added that assistance from Olympia will largely depend on what the federal government decides to do. He pointed to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s comments Wednesday that states should declare bankruptcy rather than solicit federal bailout money.
Inslee said he is “not optimistic” about the federal aid that will be made available to states, he said, “when you have the lead Republican senator tell us that we can just eat cake.”