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Lawmakers criticize Inslee for reopening pause while Pierce County remains in Phase 2

Eight Democrats and four Republicans sent a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee calling his recent pause on reopening unfair to Pierce County, which still remains in Phase 2.

OLYMPIA, Wash. — A group of Pierce County Democratic legislators is threatening the possibility of a special legislative session following Gov. Jay Inslee's recent implementation of a pause that left their county stuck in Phase 2 with tighter COVID-19 restrictions.

The letter, sent Thursday afternoon, was signed by eight Democrats in the House and Senate and four Republicans. The lawmakers claim Inslee's decision was unfair to Pierce County and that the governor's reopening plan only worked "while all Washington counties were held to the same standards."

But Inslee stood by his decision Thursday evening, saying in a statement to KING 5, "Pierce County is in Phase 2 because of the incredibly rapid rise of the infection rate there in recent weeks, not because Healthy Washington wasn’t paused earlier." Scroll down to see the governor's full statement. 

The lawmakers' letter is in response to Inslee's announcement Tuesday to put a two-week pause to the state’s “Healthy Washington” reopening plan just as more counties were expected to move back to Phase 2. 

Inslee said he made the decision after consulting with the state Department of Health because "we are in a constantly evolving situation, unlike any other during the pandemic." The state will evaluate the COVID-19 metrics at the end of the two-weeks. 

Under Inslee’s current reopening plan, counties are evaluated every three weeks on two metrics: The case rate over two weeks and the hospitalization rate over one week. Although counties originally had to meet both metrics to avoid moving backward, Inslee changed the criteria on April 9 and announced that counties could remain in Phase 3 by meeting one of the metrics.

Despite the change, in western Washington, King, Kitsap, Lewis, Pacific, Skagit and Snohomish counties were failing both metrics and were at risk of moving back to Phase 2 by the state's May 3 deadline. However, Inslee instead said he would put things on pause.

RELATED: Gov. Inslee announces two-week pause to state’s reopening plan

The lawmakers said in their letter that Inslee's decision to "disregard" his reopening plan when Pierce County was not provided the same consideration "damages both our confidence and our communities." 

Pierce County was moved back to Phase 2 on April 16 after it wasn't able to keep COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations down. Under Phase 2 restrictions, businesses, including restaurants and gyms, can only operate at a maximum of 25% capacity, versus 50% capacity in Phase 3. 

The lawmakers' letter continued, "The Pierce County community has sacrificed over the past year to save lives and keep businesses open. They deserve to be treated fairly during the Roadmap to Recovery re-opening."

RELATED: Pierce County business urges public to take pandemic seriously after Phase 2 rollback

The lawmakers' letter comes the same day that the Washington Hospitality Association launched a petition to follow California’s lead and fully reopen the state on June 15. 

Inslee has not given a timeframe on when the state might fully reopen, citing the unpredictability of the virus.

Read Inslee's full statement below: 

"We stand by our decisions designed to save the lives of the residents of Pierce County. I can categorically say Pierce County has not been treated unfairly during this pandemic. We have strived to save lives in Pierce County and have done so in a way that has been fair, based on the extraordinarily high level of virus activity in Pierce County; the extraordinarily high rate of increase in infections; and our continued concern about the virus’ growth.

"I believe this decision was fair for three reasons:

"First, Pierce County unfortunately has an extremely high rate of infection and hospitalizations at this time, one of the highest in the state and higher than any of its neighboring counties. There are 374 infections per 100,000 residents, which is 50% higher than King County.

"Second, there have been stark differences between the acceleration of the infection rate experienced in Pierce County and the plateauing of infections statewide. Any rational assessment of appropriate response to this pandemic has to take into consideration the intensity of the infection rate in the relevant counties and this we have done. Hospitalizations in Pierce County rose rapidly in the last two weeks of April as well. It would be entirely irrational to ignore the conditions in Pierce County.

"Third, even if Pierce County had enjoyed a pause before it moved to Phase 2, these numbers would not have improved. Pierce County is in Phase 2 because of the incredibly rapid rise of the infection rate there in recent weeks, not because Healthy Washington wasn’t paused earlier.

"We understand frustrations that have arisen during this pandemic. But they arise because of the rising numbers of the virus, not because of any disparate treatment between counties by my administration. Let us all focus our energies on increasing vaccinations across our state, including Pierce County, which is the ultimate way to free ourselves both from the devastation of this pandemic and from the economic restrictions that are so troublesome.

"If legislators from Pierce County have any ideas about how to accelerate that effort, I look forward to working with them."

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