Editor's note: The governor's office has clarified that, despite the movement of these five counties, the larger pause on Safe Start progress remains. The article has been updated to reflect that.
WASHINGTON — For the first time in three months, five counties will be moving ahead in the Safe Start Plan. However, they are likely to be the only ones to move ahead for the foreseeable future.
On July 2, amid a second surge of record-high coronavirus case counts, the governor announced a complete freeze on applications to move into the next phase of the Safe Start plan. At the time, the pause was expected to be short, but when case counts didn't decrease it was extended two weeks later and ultimately became indefinite.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced Tuesday that five counties have been approved to move ahead to the next phase: Yakima, Benton, Douglas, Franklin, and Chelan counties.
"These counties and their people have made tremendous progress," Inslee said.
All five counties had been in a so-called "modified Phase 1" between Phases 1 and 2. They were the most restricted counties in Washington, left behind as all other counties moved to Phases 2 and 3 months ago. Many had suffered in part because of large outbreaks in the agricultural sector, but the governor says all have seen massive improvements in recent weeks, allowing them to safely move ahead.
"Local leaders in these counties have worked hard to knock down this virus, and they have done so," he said. "They are not out of the woods yet, we know that. Neither they or we."
All five counties will now move to Phase 2, allowing for some slight improvements, including larger religious gatherings and greater occupancy at restaurants and businesses.
With that movement, 22 of Washington's 39 counties are now in Phase 2. It will likely remain that way for some time: the general pause on movement remains, and no other counties are being considered to move ahead in the Safe Start plan for now.
"It is a testament to the commitment of citizens to scientifically credible things to save themselves, and that is what they have done," Inslee said.
Rebuilding Washington's economy
The governor also announced a new task force to help guide the state as the economy struggles to recover from losses incurred during the coronavirus pandemic.
"We know a recovery is inevitable, how we recover is crucial," Inslee said in announcing the task force.
It will be called the Washington Recovery Group, and will work underneath the Office of Financial Management. The group will not develop their own policies, but will instead provide feedback on recovery programs and help disparate state agencies coordinate their recovery efforts.
"We want to work with the appropriate state agencies to holistically address the challenges this pandemic has confronted us with," Inslee said.
According to the governor, the Washington Recovery Group will include representatives from a variety of interests, including state agencies, boards, commissions, local agencies and the private sector.
Inslee says the recovery group will work to prioritize recovery for education and health care, community growth and businesses, and be guided by principles of equity and social justice as the state tries to rebuild. They will hold their first meeting sometime later this month.
Until then, the governor and other state leaders to urge Washingtonians to continue following safety guidelines to prevent any further surges or outbreaks.
"This is no time to allow superspreader events," Inslee said. "It is no time to let our guard down, even in our homes. No time for large parties where people are not socially distancing, not wearing masks. No time to stop all the things we had been doing that have had such success to date."