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Following the announcement Wednesday morning that Kittitas County has advanced to phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, restaurants can open with capacity restrictions.

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The wait is over, and the stage is now set.

The Washington State Department of Health made the decision Wednesday morning to approve Kittitas County’s variance application to move forward to stage two in the state’s phased reopening plan, which goes into effect immediately. Kittitas County, along with Thurston and Walla Walla Counties were part of Wednesday’s decision, bringing the total number of Washington counties now under phase two to 24.

“Over the past three weeks, the Kittitas County Public Health Department demonstrated their ability to quickly and thoughtfully respond to an outbreak in their community,” a state-issued press release said of the approval. “The Washington State Department of Health continues to have confidence in their approach, and as a result has approved their variance application to move to phase two of Gov. Inslee’s Safe Start plan.”

Under phase two, high-risk populations defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as persons over 65 years of age, people who live in a nursing home or long-term care facility and people of all ages with underlying medical conditions are asked to continue to stay home. For the general populations, phase two allows gatherings of no more than five people outside the household per week and all outdoor recreation with the same restrictions as gatherings.

Businesses allowed to reopen under phase two include restaurants at less than 50% capacity and with tables no larger than five persons, barbers, hair and nail salons, in-home/domestic services such as housecleaning, real estate and professional and office-based businesses. Retail businesses can open to in-store purchases with capacity restrictions.

The approval comes after weeks of anticipation for county residents. The county was one of the first in the state to apply for the variance at the beginning of May, but the COVID-19 outbreak at Twin City Foods left the application in limbo until now. Kittitas County Public Health Department Director Tristen Lamb said during a press conference that the sacrifices made by county residents and businesses and municipalities during the shutdown have finally paid off.

“Kittitas County has worked hard to show the state of Washington that our local response can contain COVID-19 and safely move forward with reopening our communities,” she said. “We take these next steps with enthusiastic caution.”

Kittitas County Public Health Officer Dr. Mark Larson shared his relief during the press conference, saying he heard the pleas of county residents who felt that they couldn’t hold on any longer under the shutdown.

“Our response to COVID-19 is truly a testament to the people who live and work here,” he said. “That’s all of you.”

THE PATH FORWARD

Although inspectors will continue with conducting routine checks on local businesses, Kittitas County Public Health Department Public Information Officer Kasey Knutson explained that the department is relying on the businesses to honor their safety plans that are required to be in place prior to operating under phase two restrictions, adding that citizens will place high expectations on the businesses they patronize to do so.

“We really hope that businesses are doing that, and that customers will sort of regulate,” she said. “Our community has been pretty vocal about locations they don’t think are doing a quality job in safety response. We’ll still go do our normal day-to-day business for inspections, but our department doesn’t have the capacity to be policing whether or not businesses have the safety plan in place.”

Looking ahead, Knutson said the county must remain under phase two restrictions for a minimum of three weeks before consideration for phase three. During that time, she said the county must continue to demonstrate proficiency in its response to any new cases of COVID-19 and that part of the responsibility rests on businesses and citizens to do their part in helping the county move ahead.

“If we can go three weeks and show that we can do this in a safe way, that means we get to open to phase three,” she said. “We know there are businesses that are wanting to open under phase three, so if our community can be responsive to this and follow phase two then we can potentially have other businesses opening per state guidelines.”

The state’s press release makes clear that the variance can be revoked if circumstances change within the jurisdiction, and Knutson said businesses and residents can be proactive to help prevent further spread of the virus within Kittitas County.

“Wear a mask to protect others,” she said. “Make sure you have a safety plan for your business. Make sure if you’re going to a business to patronize them that they have a safety plan. Make sure to limit who you see outside your home. There still needs to be some limitation as far as who people are engaging with.”

As county residents and business owners move forward under phase two, Knutson said everyone can work together to ensure continued forward momentum through the phased reopening plan.

“I don’t think anybody wants to go back,” she said. “We’re working incredibly hard to make sure we continue to move forward. We saw the response today. It’s good news for people. It’s nice to see our county celebrating and we want to keep moving in that positive direction.”

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