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Regional reopening of Washington could cause surge in coronavirus cases, state leaders say

Washington state leaders were resistant on Tuesday to Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward's idea for a regional reopening.

SPOKANE, Wash. — It's been almost one month since Washington Gov. Jay Inslee issued his "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order, shuttering businesses and requiring other physical distancing measures throughout the state.

Inslee's statewide stay-at-home order to curb the spread of coronavirus is set to expire on May 4. He said on Tuesday night that the state will not be able to lift most of the restrictions by that date.

Inslee added that the economy will reopen gradually, and not all at once.

“It will look more like the turning of a dial than the flipping of a switch,” Inslee said.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward has said she wants a regional reopening before the state opens as a whole. 

Woodward said in a Twitter thread on Friday that she is pushing for a "regional and slow approach" to opening the economy during conversations with Inslee, emphasizing that "Spokane is drastically different than western Washington."

“We are now discussing potential approaches to reverse that process by modifying current statewide restrictions first in regions where local data supports it," Woodward added in a video on the City of Spokane's website.

The changes could include allowing activities that are naturally physically distant such as fishing, industries that operate with strict safety protocols and sectors that can easily include new procedures, Woodward said. She added that the approach could also allow for "a pause or temporary tightening" if a spike in coronavirus cases occurs. 

State officials were resistant to the idea of a regional reopening on Tuesday. On a call with reporters, leaders including Inslee's Chief of Staff David Postman and State Health Officer Kathy Lofy explained that regional re-openings could cause new surges of the virus thanks to travel. 

They also pointed out some smaller towns have already struggled with an influx of people fleeing larger cities in Washington to go to vacation homes. There's concern that there could be excessive migration or tourism to those places if some areas reopened early.

The City of Spokane has also launched a COVID-19 community survey that includes questions related to reopening, such as, "Should the Spokane area develop regional plans for reopening the economy based on local data?"

Credit: City of Spokane
City of Spokane COVID-19 Community Survey

Spokane County Health Officer Dr. Bob Lutz has offered guidance to local leaders about reopening the economy, but says he was not involved in the conversation between Gov. Inslee and Woodward on Friday. 

He did say, though, that it is challenging to look at reopening locally versus statewide.

“I do think that we need to be consistent with our guidance," Dr. Lutz said.

Inslee's plan for reopening Washington

Last week, Inslee signed a pact with governors Kate Brown of Oregon and Gavin Newsom of California about working together on a plan to reopen western states.

RELATED: How the west could reopen: Governors collaborate on plan for economy

Inslee said on Tuesday that a few activities could return in the state on May 4 if data continues to show a downward trend in new coronavirus cases. 

Those activities could include elective surgeries, construction with some limitations, and more outdoor activities. 

RELATED: Reopening Washington will look like 'turning of a dial,' Gov. Inslee says

Inslee also said Washington needs more tests, and until there is a COVID-19 vaccine workplaces will need to have physical distancing and protections in place for workers.   

The latest prediction from the University of Washington's Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has pushed back the date for when social distancing measures could begin to be relaxed.

The previous model showed Washington state could consider easing social distancing guidelines the week of May 18.

RELATED: Analysis: Washington could ease social distancing guidelines by May 18

Now, the model shows "after May 26, 2020, relaxing social distancing may be possible with containment strategies that include testing, contact tracing, isolation, and limiting gathering size.

The primary purpose of the IHME model is to forecast healthcare needs. According to the model, peak resource use occurred on April 5.

On April 6, 46 people died from coronavirus - the most per day in the state since the outbreak began.

On April 20, another 25 people died in Washington state.

University of Washington Biology professor Carl Bergstrom studies the spread of infectious diseases. He isn’t involved in the IHME model, but said he doesn’t believe it’s equipped to tell us when we all can be back out on the streets.

“The IHME model is really designed to forecast healthcare needs, that’s sort of its primary purpose,” he said. “So while it’s encouraging that the IHME model says we could have zero cases by mid-May, I wouldn’t really count on that with the way that whole model is set up."

“If we’re lucky, we’ll be able to go back to some aspects of normal life on that time scale, mid-May early June, something like that,” he added.

Bergstrom also worries that misusing information could lead some governments to re-open too early – wasting the progress made in these past weeks to slow the spread.

Other health experts, including disease prevention researcher Dr. Payal Kohli, have said that relaxing social distancing too early could bring a second wave of cases in Washington, which could overwhelm the healthcare system. 

Dr. Kohli added that the ability to hold concerts and large gatherings and travel without giving it a thought "is not going to happen in the near future." But there is hope that we can return to some parts of our lives by this summer.

RELATED: What would happen if we end social distancing too early?

KING 5 Staff contributed to this report. 

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