Cautious optimism: Washington enters Phase 3 loosened COVID-19 restrictions with hope, anxiety

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This story was originally published by The Seattle Times on March 22, 2021.

By Paul Roberts
Seattle Times business reporter

As Washington state moved into the third phase of Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 reopening plan Monday, the response by many residents, business owners and experts seemed to be a mixture of optimism, anxiety, and weary resignation over just how far the state still has to go.

Many welcomed the rule changes, which will allow live attendance at sporting events and will boost indoor capacity at restaurants, retailers, fitness centers and other indoor spaces to 50%, as signs of progress against COVID-19 and critical steps for a battered economy.

“It’s definitely going to make a difference,” said Antonio Lovett-Grimm, 47, as he stood at his Grimm Brothers Foods stall at the Pike Place Market Saturday. “It’s just going to give people a little bit more confidence.”

That confidence will be key for businesses that have struggled since Inslee ordered the first stay-at-home order a year ago.

Seattle alone has seen the permanent closure of more than 260 street-level business locations, including 183 downtown, since the start of the pandemic. (On Saturday, that list expanded to include the nearly century-old Seattle institution Remo Borracchini’s Bakery & Mediterranean Market on Rainier Avenue South, which announced it has closed for good.)

And even as Washington’s broader economy continues to recover, unemployment remains elevated — 5.6% as of February, compared to 3.8% a year earlier, while the number of Washingtonians filing new claims for jobless benefits is nearly double the level before last March’s shutdowns.

“We believe moving to Phase 3 will have a meaningful impact on economic activity in downtown, particularly as we move into spring and summer,” said Jon Scholes, president and CEO of the Downtown Seattle Association.

Certainly, many consumers seem ready for a less-restricted economy.

In recent weeks, commercial districts in and around the Seattle area have been busier as people take advantage of the warmer weather and the return of indoor dining, which was allowed in much of the state at 25% in mid-February.

On Saturday, the Pike Place Market in Seattle’s downtown was thronged with shoppers and tourists, many of whom came for the annual Daffodil Day celebration.

People are “just tired of being locked in,” said Sean Brewer, 34, a sales associate at the Moon Valley Organics stall in the market. “People are seeing that light at the end of the tunnel — and they’re sprinting towards it.”

Many Mariners fans were delighted after the team announced that 9,000 fans would be allowed to attend opening day April 1.

But amid the excitement and anticipation of a return to normality, there was also a palpable sense of how much work remains before Seattle and the rest of the state fully reopen.

Most of the office workers who are so vital to downtown economies in Seattle, Bellevue and elsewhere are still working remotely. Many big employers aren’t expected to return to the office until after all employees have received vaccinations, possibly by this summer, and some workers may continue working remotely indefinitely.

Although the state’s vaccination efforts continue to gain momentum, just 22.29% of Washingtonians have received their first vaccine dose and 12.94% are fully vaccinated, as of March 17, according to the most recent data available from the Washington State Department of Health.

That had some people wondering whether relaxing restrictions now, before more people are fully vaccinated, might spur new coronavirus cases, which have plateaued in recent weeks after falling steeply in January and early February.

“You want to go out and support … your local restaurants, but at the same time, are we doing it safely?” said Micah Jackson of Seattle, who was in the market Saturday with her husband, Kevin Jackson.

Jacob Do, 18, a high school student from Vancouver, Washington, said he and many of his classmates worried that lifting restrictions could lead to another lockdown. “All it takes is just one student to have COVID and then we’re all back to getting shut down again,” said Do, who was visiting Seattle this weekend.

“It’s a little too soon,” added Do’s friend Tyler Nguyen, 19, who said a return to more restrictions would feel “like a waste of the year that we [spent] quarantined.”

Not surprisingly, many businesses and organizations are approaching Phase 3 with considerable caution.

At area QFC grocery stores, for example, store managers will closely monitor indoor capacity with infrared sensors that count customers as they enter and exit, said spokesperson Tiffany Sanders.

And many smaller businesses planned to keep capacity below what is technically allowed in the third phase.

Robot vs Sloth, a gift shop downtown, plans to allow only four customers in the shop at a time — or five in the same party — even though Phase 3 would allow up to nine, said owner Lauren Rudeck.

Any more than five “puts too much pressure on us to constantly monitor” social distance, said Rudeck, who instead asks customers to wait their turn outside and rewards them with the chance to win a free gift. “I’m not going to raise [occupancy] to 50% until all of [our staff] are vaccinated.”

The Seattle Athletic Club is also keeping occupancy below some allowed limits and will continue requiring members to reserve workout times, said operations manager Desiree Valdovinos.

“We’re definitely going on lean on the cautious side,” she said.

Even if the club did further lift its own restrictions, demand to use the club by members remains well below pre-pandemic levels, Valdovinos said. Although the club’s Phase 2 capacity is 200, it has rarely seen more than 50 members at a time, she said.

Economist Hart Hodges, a director of the Center for Economic and Business Research at Western Washington University, said the reopening will be governed both by how quickly consumers feel safe again but also by how quickly they give up cautious habits picked up during the pandemic. “I think both will be slow,” Hodges said.

But Hodges and colleague James McCafferty, also at the center, note that the pace will vary regionally. “I won’t be surprised at all to see some areas of the state be remarkably ahead of others when it comes to consumer activity,” McCafferty said.

Mark Harmsworth, a former Republican state lawmaker and current director of the Small Business Center at the Washington Policy Center, agrees.

“I’ve been spending time over in Eastern Washington and … people are much more relaxed over there than they are in downtown Seattle,” he said.

Paul Roberts:; on Twitter: @Pauledroberts.