State officials unsure when “new normal” will return

It has been a little over three weeks since Gov. Jay Inslee issued his stay-at-home order, which shuttered non-essential businesses and kept most U.S. citizens at home.

Since then, one of the questions on everyone’s mind has been: “When will things go back to normal?”

The governor’s order was extended through May 4 earlier this month, but at what point will folks be able to congregate again at parks and restaurants, or larger-scale events such as concerts and sporting events?

The answer, of course, is unclear, since there is no way to truly contain or stop COVID-19 without a treatment or a vaccine. And there’s no number, set of numbers or specific benchmark that will definitively tell us the state is out of the woods, said Vice Admiral (ret) Raquel Bono, the director of the state’s health response system.

But in a media briefing with reporters Tuesday, officials hinted at a slow series of modifications and easing of restrictions that might lead to a “different normal” for residents.

“We want to make sure all of this effort we’ve gone through and everyone’s leadership in staying home and staying healthy really has paid off,” said Secretary of Health Jonathan Wiesman.

Washington will also have to keep an eye on what officials say in California and Oregon, as Inslee announced Monday that the three west coast states would work in cooperation to reopen.

Wiesman touched on a number of possibilities, including restaurants reopening, but at reduced capacity for a period of time to see if coronavirus activity remains stable. This situation also could be a good opportunity to rethink traditional customs, such as shaking hands, and work with businesses to keep up telecommuting, Wiesman said.

Inslee’s chief of staff, David Postman, added that achieving the balance between keeping the public health and bringing regular activity back online again will be difficult.

The good news is that the social distancing measures have continued to be effective. Coronavirus activity has declined in some places, plateaued in others and increased in a select few.

“We’ve not yet seen a clear decline of COVID-19 activity throughout the state,” said Dr. Kathy Lofy, health officer at the state Department of Health.

Lofy said reproductive rates — which is the spread of the virus from person-to-person — is at one or below in the hardest-hit counties (King, Snohomish and Pierce). This means that each person who contracts COVID-19 spreads it to one person or less in these areas.

Once, the state returns to its “new normal,” the focus for health officials will be on testing any symptomatic person regardless of age or health status, isolating any person who tests positive and tracing their close contacts within 24 hours in order to keep the virus from bouncing back.

In order to do that, each state will need a huge supply of test kits. Lofy said “hundreds of thousands” would be delievered to Washington over the next few weeks.