Coronavirus Chronicles

The Day the Pandemic Changed in Washington State

After May 13, “normal” is finally in sight.

By Benjamin Cassidy May 14, 2021

Better days—and fewer masks—are on the horizon.

On a blessedly clear Seattle night, spectators squeezed into the rows of seats between the bullpens and the centerfield backdrop at T-Mobile Park. When prized Mariners pitching prospect Logan Gilbert ambled toward them to fling his warm-up tosses, the home fans whooped it up, hollering encouragement for the righthander making his debut on Thursday.

It was a familiar coronation: fans cheering wildly, rogue elbows liable to jab strangers with shared allegiances beside them. For over a year, the coronavirus pandemic has robbed sports, and every other sector of society, of such normal moments.

At long last, yesterday guaranteed that more are on the way. Hours before our literal glimpse of a less socially distant world—those tightly packed fans were sitting in one of the Mariners’ new sections for vaccinated people, which don’t require social distancing—Jay Inslee offered a broader vision of that new normal: By June 30, Washington would fully reopen its economy, the governor announced in a press conference. No more indoor dining limits. No more yoga class caps. After more than a year of restrictions, Inslee said he'd lift them even earlier if 70 percent of the state's over-16 population received at least one dose of a vaccine.

That wasn't all. Inslee said Washington K-12 schools would be expected to provide full-time in-person learning to students who want it (and a remote learning option to those who don't) this fall. Seattle Public Schools superintendent Brent Jones had announced in the morning that his district planned to go that route. And the governor adopted the CDC's about-face on masking for vaccinated people: Two weeks after receiving a final dose, people no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors, except on public transit and in a few other shared spaces. Inslee took his off before delivering the news.

After a year of seesawing coronavirus restrictions, yesterday's announcement was the most significant since March 23, 2020, when Inslee released his "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" shutdown order. Many in the business community have lobbied for more clarity on a full economic reopening in recent months. Other states, such as California, had already released their plans. "This is welcome news that provides some measure of predictability," Downtown Seattle Association president and CEO Jon Scholes said in a statement. "Uncertainty has been a major barrier for businesses as they try to reopen. Now, it’s critical that we get our vaccination rate higher."

To do so, expect more incentives than just mask-ditching, a policy that has already caused some consternation among business owners. Inslee wouldn't rule out a vaccine lottery like in Ohio. While King County's vaccination rates are on track to meet local goals in a matter of weeks, other areas have lagged behind.

The governor's already created one more reason to get doses. As of yesterday, spectator events (concerts, games) will no longer have caps on the number of vaccinated attendees. Indoor, outdoor—doesn't matter. The Mariners or Sounders or Neumos can fill their venues if everyone in them is fully protected against Covid-19.

In other words, that triumphant scene next to the ballpark bullpen on Thursday could very well extend to many corners of this city even before June 30. Now, after more than a year of waiting, we'll see how many of us are actually ready for it.

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