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Washington’s new normal: Full capacity, fewer masks

June 30, 2021 GMT

OLYMPIA, Wash. (AP) — Fifteen months after Washington state’s first “stay at home” order was issued in response to the coronavirus, businesses across the state are now allowed to return to pre-pandemic operations.

On Wednesday, most government-imposed restrictions were lifted, meaning restaurants, bars, gyms and retail stores are now allowed to resume full indoor capacity — up from the most recent limit of 50% — and physical distance requirements are no longer required.

“We are open big time in the state of Washington,” Inslee told a group gathered at Wright Park in Tacoma, the first stop of several reopening visits scheduled, including one at River Square Park in Spokane later Wednesday. On Thursday, he will raise a “Washington Ready” flag on top of the Space Needle in Seattle and will also visit Pike Place Market.

One restriction that will remain in place is a 75% attendance cap on large indoor events of more than 10,000 people, unless the event does vaccination verification prior to entry and all attendees are vaccinated. Those restrictions will be reevaluated on July 31.

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And while there have already been fewer masking requirements since last month — when the state adopted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance that eased most indoor mask-wearing for fully vaccinated people — masking rules will remain in a variety of places, including health care settings, public transit and schools. Masks will continue to be required for unvaccinated employees who return to work indoors. And businesses can continue to choose to require masks for their customers, regardless of vaccination status.

There have been more than 414,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus another 36,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 5,920 deaths.

The state is still falling short of a vaccination goal that Inslee had set that would have allowed the restrictions to be lifted even sooner: 70% of residents age 16 and older having received at least one dose.

Even with the creation of lottery incentives with prizes up to $1 million, the statewide vaccination rate for those 16 and up is just shy of 69%.

Residents age 12-15 have been eligible for vaccination since last month, and more than 37% of that group have initiated vaccination, and about 28% are fully vaccinated.

Republican Sen. John Braun said that while he’s happy businesses can fully reopen, he’s disappointed that the governor has not declared an end to the public health emergency, which means Inslee still has the power to reimpose restrictions.

“If it’s safe to reopen on June 30, why are we still in an emergency?” Braun asked. “It creates a whole bunch of uncertainty.”

One of the challenges for restaurants in particular is being able to have enough workers to meet customer demand after a year of having to lay off people as business plummeted, said Anthony Anton, president and CEO of the Washington Hospitality Association.

“We lost almost our entire workforce over the course of the year,” Anton said said at a news conference on Tuesday. ” We’re still short 80,000 workers.”

Still, businesses on Wednesday were celebrating the lifting of restrictions, with some posting pictures of their expanded seating on social media. Oly Taproom, a beer shop and taproom in Olympia that has long offered outdoor seating, posted a picture of its restored indoor bar seating — something that wasn’t allowed under previous restrictions — as did El Camino, a Mexican restaurant in Seattle, which reminded customers that the bar stools are available on first come, first serve basis, just “as B.C. (Before Covid) times.”