SEATTLE -- Gov. Jay Inslee imposed a ban on public gatherings and events of more than 250 people in King, Pierce and Snohomish in the most sweeping efforts yet to control the coronavirus epidemic in the U.S., with experts warning that the worst is yet to come.
Inslee's proclamation also requires “social distancing” at smaller gatherings in the three counties, which include the cities of Seattle, Tacoma and Everett, home to almost 4 million people. (Read the proclamation here.)
“This is not just your ordinary flu,” Inslee said. “This demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.”
These include but are not limited to: community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based, or sporting events; parades; concerts; festivals; conventions; fundraisers and similar activities.
King County reported four new deaths from the new coronavirus on Wednesday. Three were residents of Life Care Center in Kirkland, where most of Washington state deaths have occurred. The fourth death was a woman living at the Redmond Care and Rehabilitation center. She died at EvergreenHealth on Tuesday.
Washington has at least 29 COVID-19 deaths and more than 350 confirmed cases in at least 12 counties. Twenty-two of the deaths are linked to one suburban Seattle nursing home and authorities in King County said the virus has spread to at least 10 long-term care facilities. King County had 234 confirmed cases, Snohomish reported 68 and Pierce had 17 cases.
The order applies to sporting events like Seattle Mariners baseball, Seattle Sounders soccer games, XFL Seattle Dragons games, and a pair of junior hockey teams in the area. The Sounders season is already underway, and opening day for the Mariners is March 26. The decision could impact the Mariners' first seven games of the season against the Texas Rangers (March 26-29) and Minnesota Twins (March 30-April 1).
The ban will extend through at least the end of March, but Inslee said it is "very likely" to be extended beyond March.
"These are not easy decisions," Inslee said. "It is clear that our state needs a more vigorous and more comprehensive and more aggressive position if we are going to slow the spread of this epidemic."
Inslee said government had the authority to crackdown on groups or individuals who ignored the directive, but added he expected people would abide by the order. Asked specifically about penalties for violating the event size limit, he said: “The penalties are you might be killing your granddad if you don’t do it.”
Dow Constantine, King County executive, said at Wednesday’s news conference that the county is imposing a prohibition on smaller events, with fewer than 250 people, unless they meet public health guidelines that include social distancing and screening. Those prohibitions wouldn’t include grocery stores or family gatherings.
“Today’s actions will help relieve the strain on our hospital system,” Constantine said.
Seattle Mayor Jennny Durkan said: “We will get through it, it will be hard.”
Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health - Seattle & King County, said the region is facing a health emergency as the number of cases double every few days.
“We expect a large-scale outbreak in weeks and this will be a very difficult time,” he said. “It’s similar to what you might think of as an infectious disease equivalent of a major earthquake that’s going to shake us for weeks and weeks.”
Experts say models show there are likely at least 1,000 positive cases in the community. Duchin said social distancing and other measures can help reduce the spread.
The governor previously said he was not currently planning to call for widespread school closures.
But he said he is asking school districts to make contingency plans around how they could provide services to families in need if schools closed for several weeks. Potential issues include free and reduced-price breakfast and lunch, students completing school work at home, and child care options.
“Washingtonians have stepped up in a big way and come together to face this public health crisis,” Inslee said. “I know these community strategies and distancing plans might pose challenges, but they are necessary to slow the spread of COVID-19.”
The Seattle Sounders FC said it would postpone its March 21 home match against FC Dallas in an effort to help stop the spread of COVID-19.
Meanwhile, the XFL Seattle Dragons said it would play its game March 15 at CenturyLink Field without any fans. Ticketholders would be getting refunds or a credit, the team said. The game will still be played and televised.
The Seattle Mariners released a statement saying the club is working with Major League Baseball to come up with alternative options for playing its games scheduled for the end of March at T-Mobile Park.
Because casinos are on tribal land, it would be tricky for the state to close or make major changes to casinos. A spokesperson for the state Gambling Commission said there are not many changes happening at casinos as of Wednesday, March 11.
A global pandemic
The announcement comes on the heels of the World Health Organization's declaration of a global pandemic for COVID-19. The WHO said the number of cases outside China has increased 13-fold, and the number of countries affected has tripled. There are more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries. The worldwide death toll was 4,291 as of Wednesday, March 11.
"I truly believe that this outbreak may be one of the most transformative and consequential events that we've had in this region and in this country," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said. "I also believe and know we will get through it. It will be hard. One thing that gives me great comfort is the leadership I've seen at every level of government."
At least 10 long-term care facilities in the Seattle area have reported COVID-19 cases, with deaths at three of them — a worrying development as health officials have cautioned that the elderly and those with underlying conditions are especially at risk.
Inslee on Tuesday outlined a list of requirements for such centers aimed at stopping the worst coronavirus outbreak in the nation. A nursing home in Issaquah and another in Seattle each reported the death of a resident on Tuesday, bringing the total COVID-19 deaths in the state to at least 24.
Nineteen of those deaths are tied to a Kirkland nursing home.
Under Inslee’s new rules, residents at these facilities will be limited to one visitor a day and they must host them in their rooms. All visitors must sign in and follow precautionary measures like social distancing, and employees must be screened for symptoms at the start of each shift, he said.
Inslee said the state is preparing for many more cases than have been reported, potentially tens of thousands, based on estimates of the spread of the disease.