As those restrictions continue, the state plans to ensure that unemployment benefits for about 100,000 people don’t expire later this month — even if Congress fails to pass a new relief package to extend those benefits at the federal level.
At a press conference Tuesday morning, Inslee didn’t introduce any new coronavirus restrictions. But he said the continued severity of the COVID-19 pandemic warrants extending the limits he announced in mid-November, saying the steep rise in cases has reached “crisis levels.” Absent an extension, the restrictions would have ended Dec. 14.
“What we do now literally will be a matter of life and death for many of our citizens,” Inslee said. He urged people to refrain from holiday gatherings, saying that people need to remain vigilant for just a few more months until vaccines are widely available.
State officials expect to begin distributing some vaccines this month, with high-risk health care workers receiving the first vaccinations. But the doses will remain limited until 2021.
In addition to closing indoor areas of restaurants and bars, the ongoing restrictions keep many businesses such as movie theaters and gyms closed throughout the state. Retail establishments and grocery stores can continue to operate at 25% capacity, as can personal service businesses such as barber shops and nail salons.
Professional and college level sports weren’t subject to the new restrictions, but high school athletes remain unable to play other teams and must continue to wear masks during practices.
Significantly, Washington residents remain banned from gathering indoors with anyone outside of their immediate household. Exceptions are allowed only for those who quarantine for at least seven days in advance of a gathering, have no symptoms and also have a negative COVID-19 test in the 48 hours before the event.
Without a negative COVID-19 test, people must quarantine 10 days before attending any indoor social event. Those rules align with new guidelines the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released last week.
Small outdoor gatherings are still allowed, as is outdoor restaurant dining in groups of five or fewer, as long as social distancing and other requirements are met.
As of Monday, there have been 184,004 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington state, according to the Washington state Department of Health. The number of people hospitalized with the disease reached 11,695, while 2,941 people have died. Thousands of new cases are being reported daily.
This week, the Health Department asked people to limit their holiday celebrations to only members of their immediate households, citing the recent rise in cases. State officials said they can’t be sure yet whether people gathering in person over Thanksgiving, in violation of the statewide restrictions, will cause cases to rise even more sharply in the coming days.
“As the state continues to experience very high COVID-19 activity, now is not the time to let our guard down,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary of health for COVID-19, in a press release. “We understand that people want to gather with friends and extended family in-person for the holidays, but that just isn’t possible to do safely this year.”
While Inslee said it is possible that things could improve to the point that he can ease the restrictions before Jan. 4, it’s also possible the restrictions will have to be extended even further.
On Tuesday, Inslee said about 80% of the state’s intensive care unit hospital beds were occupied, with the possibility that demand for those beds could exceed capacity by the end of the month.
Citizens and business also face economic challenges, especially as the statewide restrictions continue.
Inslee said he is particularly concerned about what will happen to people who have been eligible for unemployment payments from the federal expansion of those benefits, but who could lose their eligibility on Dec. 26 if Congress doesn’t act. Freelancers, independent contractors and self-employed workers are among those benefiting from pandemic unemployment assistance set to expire later this month.
If Congress lets those benefits lapse, the Democratic governor said he would take executive action to continue them for at least another month. About 100,000 workers would be affected, Inslee said.
Also Tuesday, Inslee announced $50 million more in forthcoming support for businesses. That’s in addition to $100 million in business relief he announced last month, which was accompanied by $35 million to help people pay their rent and utility bills.
Lisa Brown, the director of the state Department of Commerce, said the latest round of business relief will be steered toward businesses most affected by the current COVID-19 restrictions, such as gyms and music venues.
“We know that restaurants, breweries, bars, yoga studies, those types of facilities ... are most hard hit,” Brown said. “We will prioritize small businesses in every corner of the state, particularly in those most hard hit areas.”
Republicans have criticized Inslee for not being sensitive enough to the needs of businesses during the pandemic, with many Republican legislative leaders urging him to call a special session of the Legislature to approve additional relief.
On Monday, GOP legislators said in a statement that the governor should be working with businesses to find ways to reduce the spread of the virus, "instead of unfairly restricting their ability to earn a living."
"We could achieve the same results by partnering with small-business owners instead of targeting them," said the joint statement from House and Senate Republicans.
As things stand, the Legislature isn’t scheduled to convene for a new session until Jan. 11.
This story was updated to add quotes from state officials and more details about vaccines, unemployment benefits and business relief.