The state is also releasing another $50 million to assist businesses impacted by the ongoing restrictions
OLYMPIA — Calling it “one of the more difficult” decisions during an already challenging year, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Tuesday announced that restrictions on businesses and social gatherings would be extended through Christmas and New Years, until Jan. 4, 2021.
“This is because we remain concerned about COVID activity,” Inslee said at a press conference announcing the decision, “and we still do not have a clear picture of the situation following the Thanksgiving weekend.”
The governor also announced the state was allocating an additional $50 million in grants to assist businesses impacted by the restrictions, and promised that the state would act unilaterally to extend federal pandemic unemployment benefits, currently set to expire on Dec. 25, should Congress fail to act on a new relief bill.
“We will not allow people to fall off that cliff in the state of Washington,” Inslee said, “if congress does not act.”
The restrictions, originally approved on Nov. 14, once again closes restaurants to indoor dining, along with gyms, fitness centers, movie theaters, and bowling alleys. It also prohibits social gatherings with people outside a single household, unless attendees quarantine 14 days before and after, or seven days with a negative COVID-19 test.
“It was the right thing to do in November, it will be the right thing to do in December,” said Inslee.
While noting that initial data shows Washington may be among the states to avoid a large post-Thanksgiving bump in cases, Inslee said hospitalization numbers, which lag cases by around two weeks, are still trending in the wrong direction.
“If we are unable to arrest or slow down the rate of increase,” Inslee said, “our modelers are showing us that we will be in a very troubled position by the end of this month.”
As of Dec. 6, there were 1,094 people hospitalized with a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19 in the state of Washington, up from 373 two months ago. As of Monday, 80 percent of the state’s available ICU beds were full. 24 percent of those were COVID-19 patients, a number that has more than doubled in the past month.
On Monday, the state reported nearly 7,000 new cases of COVID-19, though the data included a backlog caused by slowdowns related to a server switch, along with approximately 1,800 potential duplicate cases that had yet to be resolved and may later be removed from the total.
Washington Secretary of Health Dr. John Wiesman said officials are seeing a slight decline in real-time numbers of people going to the hospital with COVID-like illnesses.
“The beauty of this is that by looking at all these data sources and understanding, ‘are they all telling us the same things? Are there conflicts?’ Those things all go into our thinking about where we are,” said Wiesman.
Inslee added that the state is much less focused on total daily cases now, especially with testing up sharply in most places.
“If twice as many people get tested you’re probably going to have more cases,” he said. “What there isn’t an argument about is the hospitalizations for people that have COVID.”
Initial shipments of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine are due to arrive in Washington by the middle of the month, with more than 250,000 doses due by the end of the year. Once cleared for use, those will likely be used for frontline healthcare workers.
Still, Inslee said, it’s a sign that there may be a light at the end of the tunnel for people exhausted by endless restrictions due to the pandemic.
“Our ability to hopefully get out from under these restrictions, and not have our hospitals overwhelmed, again depends on us being in the holiday spirit in December,” said Inslee. “And the holiday spirit is to give the most precious gift of Christmas, which is life itself.”
Economic help available now
At Tuesday’s press event, Lisa Brown, the state’s secretary of commerce, said the additional $50 million would allow them to double the number of businesses who could receive grants.
“For this current round of Working Washington grants, we have already received 16,000 applications,” said Brown, “and there are thousands more that have begun the application process.”
Businesses hoping to be approved for the funding will need to act quickly. Brown said they are setting a soft deadline of Dec. 11 for applications to be completed in order to expedite grant approvals by the end of the year, when any unspent CARES Act funding needs to go back to the federal government.
The additional funding announced Tuesday will double the amount available for this round, Brown said, which will be focused on businesses directly impacted by the current restrictions.
“And we will prioritize small businesses in every corner of the state,” said Brown, “particularly in those most hard hit areas.”
Information on the Working Washington small business grant program and a link to apply is available on the Department of Commerce website.
In order to qualify, businesses must have annual revenues of less than $5 million, and be directly impacted by the recent public health measures. The maximum grant amount is $20,000, and can only be used toward expenses directly related to the COVID-19 pandemic.