As of June 30, bar-goers are able to stand shoulder-to-shoulder and diners can sit at restaurant tables that have long been vacant to reduce capacity — more signs that pre-pandemic life is returning.
Home to the nation’s first known case of coronavirus and the first fatality, Washington has lifted most remaining restrictions imposed on the private sector and public life, measures intended to blunt the spread of the deadly disease.
As of 12:01 a.m., restaurants, bars, retail stores, supermarkets, movie theaters, gyms, stadiums — pretty much all commercial enterprises — were able to operate at full capacity for the first time since mid-March 2020.
Gov. Jay Inslee ordered their closure 15 months ago to protect the public health and safety. Weeks later, he ended the order and replaced it with caps on how many people could frequent commercial establishments and how many could attend activities from church services and funerals to sporting events and concerts.
“It hasn’t been easy, but I’m proud of how Washingtonians came together, persevered and sacrificed to fight this virus, and now we’re finally in a place that is safe enough to end this chapter,” Inslee said in a statement Tuesday.
“Even though Wednesday marks a new stage in our continued efforts to defeat this pandemic, we still have work to do,” he said. “Continued success depends on everyone getting vaccinated and encouraging any loved one who has not yet received this lifesaving vaccine to do so, and quickly.”
Inslee announced last month that June 30 would be the date for reopening. But he also said he would lift the restrictions sooner if 70% of Washingtonians 16 and older initiated vaccinations before that date. That rate was 68.8% late Monday.
Also gone Wednesday are state requirements for social distancing. And when it comes to wearing masks, the state is stepping back and letting businesses and public entities set their own rules. However, unvaccinated employees are still required to wear masks in most settings.
“Today is a celebratory day,” Anthony Anton, president of the state hospitality association, told reporters Tuesday.
Starting at 12:01 a.m. Wednesday, bars had the option of returning to their previous closing time of 2 a.m. And customers can once again saddle up on bar stools, which was disallowed during the pandemic.
But Anton is asking patrons to be patient. Many restaurants and bars are having a hard time recruiting staff, many of whom fled to other industries during COVID.
“We are still trying to find our workforce,” he said. “Please show grace to the workers who are there.”
Inslee plans to mark the occasion of the state’s reopening Wednesday by attending events in Tacoma and Spokane. On Thursday, he intends to raise a flag emblazoned with “Washington Ready” above the Space Needle in Seattle. He also plans to drop by Pike Place Market.
With reopening comes a return of many in-person activities long-paused by cities, counties and the state.
In Olympia, the state Capitol will reopen to the public Thursday after being closed since March 2020. Tours will start again soon. Closure of the building forced the Legislature to conduct its 2021 session remotely.
And those rallies on the steps could be returning, too. The Department of Enterprise Services has begun considering requests for permits for outdoor events.
While life is going to look and feel a lot like normal, public health experts warn the pandemic is far from over.
“We have come a long way and sacrificed a lot to make it to this point,” Snohomish Health District health officer Dr. Chris Spitters said during a Tuesday media briefing. “While we may feel done with COVID, COVID isn’t done with us. We honestly don’t know what the future holds. Be smart, get vaccinated.”