New Plan for Washington Business During the COVID-19 Pandemic

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Like the New Year, it’s out with the old plan and in with a new plan for Washington State businesses in the grips of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Effective January 11, 2021, Washington’s Safe Start plan for addressing business operations will be replaced by a new plan, which Governor Jay Inslee calls the “Healthy Washington – Roadmap to Recovery” plan.  For many businesses, the new plan doesn’t change much; but other businesses – particularly those that are hurting the most from closures and other restrictions – may welcome some (but not much) loosening of the tight restrictions that have been imposed on them.

In contrast to Safe Start’s county-by-county approach, the new Healthy Washington plan will address business restrictions by region, with the state divided into eight regions.  The regions are mostly based on those used by Emergency Medical Services for evaluating health care services based on such factors as hospitalizations, case data, and disease mobility.  The eight regions are:

  • Central: King, Pierce, Snohomish
  • East: Adams, Asotin, Ferry, Garfield, Lincoln, Pend Oreille, Spokane, Stevens, Whitman
  • North: Island, San Juan, Skagit, Whatcom
  • North Central: Chelan, Douglas, Grant, Okanogan
  • Northwest: Clallam, Jefferson, Kitsap, Mason
  • South Central: Benton, Columbia, Franklin, Kittitas, Walla Walla, Yakima
  • Southwest: Clark, Cowlitz, Klickitat, Skamania, Wahkiakum
  • West: Grays Harbor, Lewis, Pacific, Thurston

Like the Safe Start plan, the new Healthy Washington plan will proceed in “phases.”  While more phases may be rolled out over time, only two phases – “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” – were announced with the plan.  All regions will begin in Phase 1 on January 11.

What does that mean for my business?  For the most part, Phase 1 aligns with restrictions currently in place for most counties today, with few exceptions.  In fact, owners of retail stores, professional services (attorneys, accountants, financial services, etc.), and personal services (hair and nail salons, pet grooming, tattoo parlors, etc.) will see no change on January 11.  They will still be restricted to the current 25% capacity limits under which they currently operate; and that 25% capacity limit will continue even when their region moves to Phase 2.

The Healthy Washington plan tries to breathe some life into restaurants, fitness gyms, movie theatres, concert halls, and other entertainment establishments.  While Phase 1 hardly loosens the currently tight restrictions these businesses face, Phase 2 will enable an expansion of business on premises.  Here is the summary chart for Phases 1 and 2 as released by the Governor’s Office:

Yes, it’s fine print, but for now it’s we have.

When will my region move to Phase 2?  Like the Safe Start plan, the new Healthy Washington plan has metrics that will be assessed for whether a region qualifies to move to, and stay at, Phase 2.  A region’s phase will be determined by the State Department of Health in response to four metrics.  To move from Phase 1 to Phase 2, a region must meet all four of these metrics:

  • Decreasing trend in two-week rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population by greater than 10%
  • Decreasing trend in two-week rate new COVID-19 hospital admission rates per 100,000 population by greater than 10%
  • ICU occupancy (total COVID-19 and non-COVID-19) of less than 90%
  • COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 10%

To remain in Phase 2, a region must meet at least three of the following metrics:

  • Decreasing or flat trend in two-week rate of COVID-19 cases per 100,000 population
  • Decreasing or flat trend in two-week rate new COVID-19 hospital admission rates per 100,000 population
  • ICU occupancy (total COVID-19 and non-COVID-19) of less than 90%
  • COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 10%.

A region that fails to meet two or more of these metrics will be moved back to Phase 1.

What is Helsell Fetterman’s take on the new plan?  Governor Inslee is trying to address the dire conditions faced by the many businesses in our state that are, or essentially are, idle under his currently tight restrictions.  He is trying to breathe some life back into those businesses, with the hope that our state’s declining COVID-19 infection numbers continue to decline enough to move most, if not all, regions to Phase 2 on a short timeframe.  The overarching hope is that vaccines will be available to all Washingtonians in that short timeframe, so as to make further phases unnecessary and inappropriate.

Business owners will find the new plan does not go far enough fast enough.  More businesses will fail under the Healthy Washington plan, while others may generate just enough business to hang in there for a few more months.  Restaurants are a highly-visible barometer as to the prosperity of the community.  Shuttered restaurants signal tough times, and unless restaurants and other businesses can re-open, those tough times will remain.  Indoor dining is necessary at this time of the year, but indoor dining will remain prohibited under Phase 1, and that could be the death knell for more restaurants.  If they can make it to Phase 2, restaurants can begin to open again for indoor dining, albeit at 25% capacity.  Will that be enough over this cold winter when outdoor dining in Washington state is not a feasible operating model?

Time will tell if Governor Inslee’s change in course will succeed, but in some respects, the new plan cannot be any harsher than the existing plan for those business that are shuttered under the current restrictions.

Helsell Fetterman LLP closely follows Governor Inslee’s proclamations, guidance, and statements on reopening business in Washington and we are available to advise and assist you in tailoring your reopening and operations to meet these evolving standards.  For further information or assistance, please contact Scott Collins ([email protected]).


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