OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Thursday extended his statewide stay-home order through 11:59 p.m. May 4, saying it is proving to be an effective weapon in the war against the deadly coronavirus.
Originally issued March 23, the order aims to aggressively curb movement and interaction of residents by shutting down businesses deemed non-essential and banning public and private gatherings. It’s an unprecedented attempt to stem the spread of a disease which had claimed at least 262 lives in Washington as of Thursday.
“Since just over a week ago, the number of deaths and the number of cases has doubled,” Inslee said in a televised news conference. “This order is not only justified, it is morally necessary. The science is clear: More people will die if we stop now.”
Washington’s cumulative case count has risen to 6,585 since the outbreak began in January, according to the Department of Health.
Washington, like most other states, expects demand for intensive health care due to the outbreak to peak in mid-April. Modeling for such forecasts assumes stay-home orders and other strict social distancing measures are not removed.
Joining Inslee for the announcement were John Wiesman, secretary of the state Department of Health; Dr. Kathy Lofy, the state health officer; and Vice Admiral Raquel Bono, state director for COVID-19 Health System Response Management.
Lofy said the latest analysis indicates the apex of the outbreak, during which demand for intensive health care will be most acute, will be April 11 in Washington. That date varies over time, she said, as scientists continuously revise their projection.
“We feel very comfortable that we have the capacity in beds and ventilators,” said Bono. “We do have concern about ICU beds.”
Said Inslee: “We’re not out of the woods yet.” That said, there has been encouraging progress, he said, noting that experts estimate that person-to-person contact has been reduced by 80%.
The stay-home order could be extended again. “Yes, it is possible,” he said. “The virus has a say in this.”
Under Inslee’s order, which had been set to expire next week, residents can go outside and essential businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations, banks and pharmacies can remain open. Inslee’s office previously released a lengthy list of workers whose jobs are considered “essential,” and his office continues to review requests from companies seeking clearance to operate.
Inslee imposed no new restrictions Thursday, nor did he revise any guidance regarding implementation. Details of state policies and recommendations can be found online at coronavirus.wa.gov.
Prior proclamations such as the closure of public and private schools, state parks, entertainment venues and other businesses where people congregate, such as fitness centers and churches, remain in effect.
Thursday’s directive cements, for at least another month, a new normal for many Washingtonians — no classes, no clothes shopping, no hair cuts, no gym visits and, if you do venture out even for a walk, a mandate to stay at least six feet from the nearest person. Health officials urge people to thoroughly wash hands after touching pretty much anything.
It is hard but it is temporary, Inslee said.
“We are going to reopen our parks. We are going to reopen our restaurants. We are going to reopen our schools,” he said. “Today is a big step toward doing all of those things.”
And for hundreds of thousands of people, this new normal means little or no work.
‘Mind-boggling’ jobless claims
Earlier Thursday, the state Employment Security Department reported a record number of new claims for unemployment benefits last week, and more people are now receiving jobless aid in Washington than at any point during the Great Recession.
There were 181,975 claims filed the week of March 22 to 28, about 50,000 more than the prior week. The one-week tally is a 3,513% increase over the same week in 2019, a figure that ESD Commissioner Suzi LeVine called “mind-boggling.”
Statewide, 346,141 people were receiving state benefits as of March 28. Levine expects the number to jump when federal aid from the recently passed coronavirus response package becomes available this month. For comparison, the previous high fnumber of claimants was 314,473 in January 2010.
“We expected this,” Inslee said at the news conference Thursday.
Nationally, nearly 6.6 million Americans applied for unemployment benefits last week, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. That’s double a record set a week earlier, and it indicates that layoffs are accelerating as businesses shutter amid “stay-home” orders in most states.
In Washington, the construction industry suffered the biggest hit. There were 28,021 new claims in that sector, up from 5,021 a week earlier. Retail and wholesale businesses and manufacturing had the next-largest increases in terms of percentage.
Home builders are among those the governor ruled to be nonessential and thus not allowed to work. They want to be deemed essential and the Senate Republican Caucus asked the governor to do so.
Inslee said he’s not changing his mind.
“We made that decision. It stands,” he said Thursday, explaining that “we are going to have more people die if we don’t have reduced interactions.”
There were 23,360 new filings in the food service and accommodations sector, down from the 41,309 the week before. Restaurants and bars had to stop providing on-site consumption under an order issued March 16, a week before the original stay-home directive was issued.
The state has shelled out more than $67 million in payments since March 15. In a few days, federal assistance will become available too.
Washington is trying to ease the financial pain in other ways such imposing a moratorium on evictions and getting utilities to provide assistance for those unable to pay.
And on Friday, April 3, businesses with fewer than 500 employees will be able to seek loans through the $2.2 trillion federal rescue package signed into law last week.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.