With an alarming increase in coronavirus cases in Washington, drastic measures are required to stem the spread of the virus. But in implementing such measures, Gov. Jay Inslee and public health officials must clearly and transparently explain why they are necessary.
Inslee on Sunday issued updated restrictions for businesses and public gatherings throughout the state. Reminiscent of shutdown orders that lasted from March until the end of May, the latest directive closes bowling centers, gyms and movie theaters. It also restricts restaurants to outdoor dining or carry-out service, and restricts retail outlets — including grocery stores — to 25 percent of capacity.
There are reasonable arguments to be made for the shutdowns. Washington was the first state to identify a coronavirus case, and Inslee acted quickly and firmly in response to what soon was deemed a pandemic. The result is that, per capita, Washington ranks in the bottom 10 of states in terms of COVID-19 infections and deaths attributed to the virus.
The success of a strong response to a previously unknown disease is demonstrable. But much has been learned about coronavirus since then, both by health officials and the public. With the recent surge attributed mostly to small gatherings and household transmissions, there is reason to question how shutting down businesses will be helpful.
While some people have willfully ignored recommendations to wear masks in public, practice social distancing and frequently wash hands, many more have followed the suggestions. The result, according to evidence in both Washington and nationally, is that casual contact at retail outlets is not the primary cause of the recent uptick in infections.
Previous shutdown orders helped stem the tide of the disease, but they also took an economic toll that is still being measured. Many restaurants, bars and businesses were unable to survive the first wave of shutdowns; many others barely did. Since then, unemployment numbers spiked and have gradually trended downward; countless Clark County workers have suffered economic damage and the psychological cost that comes with it; and the federal government has been slow to approve a second wave of financial assistance.
Closing businesses will add to the burden felt by millions of Washington residents.
Indeed, health concerns take priority. In this state, more than 125,000 cases of COVID-19 have been identified, and more than 2,500 deaths have been attributed to the disease. This is not the seasonal flu, regardless of how adamantly some people claim that it is. Eight months into the pandemic, the grip of the disease is stronger than ever. As Inslee said, “Inaction here is not an option.”
But in taking action, Inslee and public health officials also must do a better job of balancing the economic toll with public health concerns. In Clark County, household transmission has been identified as the biggest spreader of recent COVID-19 cases; small gatherings of people from different households have been identified as the second-biggest spreader.
It is essential that all citizens work to slow the virus. On Monday, Dr. Alan Melnick, Clark County’s public health officer, said: “The COVID-19 case numbers are exploding. They are going up at an alarming rate.” In order for all businesses to reopen and for schools to reopen, that trend must be reversed.
But getting the public to fully buy into the necessary measures will require full transparency from state officials.