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Skagit County could slip back to Phase 2 if COVID-19 trends continue rising

Health officials said B.1.1.7, otherwise known as the UK COVID-19 variant, is largely to blame for rising cases. The move backward could devastate small businesses.

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. — Mount Vernon's Lunchbox Diner has only been open for seven days after a five-month coronavirus-related closure.

Owner Steve Sewell said it is the first time he's felt hopeful about his business surviving.

"Business has been fantastic," he said. "I couldn't ask for a better time to open up."

The timing is perfect for the restaurant. The annual Tulip Festival is now blooming, bringing a desperately needed injection of money to the Skagit Valley.

But the coronavirus still hangs heavy over Skagit County. The Health Department said the number of new cases detected every day is rising at an alarming rate.

On Sunday, the number was seven. That number doubled to 14 the next day, and by Wednesday, it had spiked to 25. Based on Skagit County’s population size, an average of 18 or more new cases per day is enough to push the county over the 200 cases per 100,000 residents benchmark.

It would only take seven new hospitalizations in a week for the county to move back to Phase 2.

RELATED: Does your county meet metrics to stay in Phase 3? Check this map

A return to Phase 2 would mean restaurants like Sewell's could only operate at 25% capacity, which could be his breaking point after holding on for so long.

"To be able to open back up and run is the only way I'm gonna survive," said Sewell. "If I have to cut back to 25% or shut completely, I'm not gonna survive. I'm done."

County health officials said 40% to 50% of new cases are the much more contagious B.1.1.7, which is the variant first detected in the UK. Projections show the numbers going even higher.

"We haven't seen the result of Easter yet, but every single time during this pandemic that there's been a family holiday, the rates have gone up," said Skagit County Health Officer Dr. Howard Leibrand. "I suspect we'll see some problems with that."

Leibrand said a slide back to Phase 2 could come in a little as three weeks if people don't continue to wear masks and avoid large gatherings.

With the spring weather improving, he advises gatherings be held outdoors.

"You're 20 times less likely to get infected outdoors," he said.

When asked if he thinks a return to Phase 2 is inevitable for Skagit County, Leibrand said, "If the trends continue, yes."

That leaves Sewell depending on everyone in his community to follow COVID-19 rules and serve the common good, if he is going to be able to continue serving his customers.

"There's a lot of people who are determined to survive," Sewell said. "We can't do it if you only think of yourself."