[Originally published in our sister publication, The Stranger in Seattle—eds.]
Gov. Jay Inslee used his emergency powers on Wednesday to ban all large events in King County and two neighboring counties, effectively shutting down public gatherings in the largest metropolitan area in the Pacific Northwest. Inslee’s ban, aimed at curbing the spread of the deadly coronavirus, will last through March but the governor warned it could go on longer.
King County is also banning events smaller than 250 people unless event organizers can meet stringent public health requirements, including social distancing that keeps people at least six feet away from each other at all times.
Both event bans apply to nearly all types of gatherings, from entertainment to religious and business gatherings. The governor warned that he is also seriously considering closing all area schools. (Shortly after his announcement, Seattle Public Schools announced they would close for at least two weeks beginning Thursday.)
“This is an extremely dangerous event that we are facing but we are not helpless," Inslee said. "We have the ability to seize our own destiny and the safety of our loved ones. By mid-May, we could be looking at over 60,000 people infected. This is something that we need to act on.”
The event ban will wreak havoc on the local entertainment industry, with numerous concerts and performances cancelled, including the season opener for the Seattle Mariners baseball team, which is scheduled for March 26.
The new coronavirus, called COVID-19, has just been ruled a pandemic by the World Health Organization and has already killed 24 people in Washington state, with more than 260 confirmed infections statewide. The number of infections has exponentially grown in recent days as diagnostic testing has expanded, and health authorities are now convinced that the virus has infected hundreds if not thousands of people in the region.
The ban on large events, which covers King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, is aimed at easing pressure on the region’s healthcare system as it faces an influx of people infected with the virus. Health experts describe the overall aim as “flattening the curve,” with "the curve" referring to how many people might become infected by the disease.
Jeffrey Duchin, King County’s health officer, said Wednesday that "we expect a large-scale outbreak in weeks" and that it will likely overwhelm hospitals and emergency rooms as more at-risk individuals become infected. He descried the pandemic as “a major earthquake that’s going to shake us for weeks and weeks.”
“We know that we cannot stop it,” Duchin said. “By delaying the number of persons who become infected we will be able to have lesser impact on our community and healthcare system.”
Inslee also recommended that people delay any elective surgeries and avoid any unnecessary visits to healthcare facilities.
Seattle is the hardest hit region by COVID-19 in the country, with the majority of confirmed American deaths thus far. Other regions around the world that have been hit especially hard—including China, Northern Italy, and Iran—have seen their hospitals paralyzed with patients in critical condition from the flu-like virus.
King County’s additional ban on small events will force those hosting gatherings of fewer than 250 people to either cancel or comply with new public health rules. Those rules for smaller events, which have no stated end date, include:
• Limiting contact of people within six feet of each other for longer than 10 minutes;
• All event employees must be screened for COVID-19 conditions daily;
• Hand-washing stations or hand sanitizer must be readily available.
Both the state and King County event bans are legally binding requirements, but the governor and Constantine both said they do not plan on actively patrolling the region.
“The enforcement is going to be by complaint,” Constantine said. “There is not going to be a set of public health police looking around for gatherings.”
Inslee gave a morbid description of enforcement on his event ban: “The penalties are that you might be killing your grand dad if you don’t do it.”
Inslee added that the event ban will not apply to grocery stores, retail stores, public transit like trains or ferries, and may not apply to Washington’s casinos, as those are governed by tribal law.
"We do not want to see people shoulder to shoulder in bars, that is just not acceptable,” Inslee said.
But Constantine said visiting restaurants was still encouraged, provided they are following proper sanitation practices.
“Business can and must continue,” Constantine said. “Restaurants, retail, music, arts, culture, movie theaters, can and should continue if they are able to meet these criteria.”
In addition to Constantine, Inslee was joined at his Wednesday morning press conference by the executives of neighboring Pierce and Snohomish counties and the mayors of Everett, Tacoma, and Seattle. Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan said the coronavirus could be an historic event for the entire country.
“I truly believe that this outbreak may be the most transformative and consequential event that we have had in this region and this country,” Durkan said. “I also believe and know that we will get through it.”
Despite President Trump’s repeated claims that COVID-19 has a smaller impact than the seasonal flu, health experts warn that the new virus is far deadlier than the seasonal flu, especially for older or people with underlying health conditions. The fatality rate for people over aged 80 could be as high as 15 percent.
“This is not just your ordinary flu,” Inslee said. “This is a virus that the experts tell us is at least ten times more potentially fatal than the flu. This demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.”