In Fight Against Coronavirus, Washington State Weighs Stricter Limits on Gatherings

Vice President Mike Pence, right, looks on as Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Camp Murray in Washington state. Pence was in Washington to discuss the state's efforts to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus.

Vice President Mike Pence, right, looks on as Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference, Thursday, March 5, 2020, at Camp Murray in Washington state. Pence was in Washington to discuss the state's efforts to fight the COVID-19 coronavirus. AP Photo/Ted S. Warren


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The move comes as events around the U.S. are getting canceled and postponed.

Washington state officials are considering mandatory measures to limit where and when people can gather as public health authorities seek to curb the spread of the new coronavirus, the state’s governor said on Sunday.

Up until now, Washington has relied on voluntary “self-quarantine” guidelines that recommend people stay home from work and school and avoid public places if they suspect that they have the coronavirus or if they’ve had interactions with someone known to have it.

But Gov. Jay Inslee said during an interview with Margaret Brennan on CBS’s Face the Nation that he and other officials were contemplating more stringent steps.

“We are looking to determine whether mandatory measures are required,” Inslee said. “We are thinking about stronger measures right now.”

Some public health experts have cautioned that there are limits to how effective voluntary quarantine measures can be in controlling an outbreak like the one unfolding with Covid-19—the disease caused by a coronavirus that first emerged in China late last year. 

They've said additional measures may be called for as new cases appear that have no clear link to people who traveled to places where the disease is widespread, or to people known to be infected.

But as precautionary measures become more restrictive, they can result in greater economic damage and also threaten to take a personal financial toll on anyone prevented from working.

Scott Gottlieb, who served as commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration from 2017 to 2019, is among those who has argued that tougher strategies are needed in parts of the U.S. where the virus is most prevalent in order to slow its spread.

Gottlieb didn't respond to an interview request last week, but has outlined his views on Twitter and in other forums.

"We must adopt strong mitigation steps in areas of outbreak like Seattle that will significantly slow economic activity as consequence," he wrote on Sunday. Although he also noted that he did not believe that "lockdowns" or forced mass quarantines are the right answer for the U.S. given their heavy social and economic costs.

"At the same time, we must provide direct economic assistance to cities, states, people burdened with hardship to compensate for large costs of strong mitigation steps and give cities more latitude to adopt such measures," Gottlieb added.

People and businesses around the country have been increasingly canceling or curtailing events, public gatherings and travel plans in the face of the outbreak.

On Friday, organizers of South by Southwest—a major festival in Austin, Texas that is focused on music, technology and film—said that city officials had canceled the event, which had been scheduled to get underway this week.

Emerald City Comic Con, a comic book and pop culture gathering in Seattle that typically draws tens of thousands of attendees, was postponed, the organizers of that event said.

And the National Basketball Association in recent days asked teams to begin preparing for the possibility of playing games without fans in attendance at arenas, ESPN has reported.

San Francisco public health authorities on Saturday issued an order barring “non-essential” group events at city-owned facilities for the next two weeks. These restrictions apply to gatherings at city facilities of 50 people or more, for social, cultural or entertainment events, where people are not separated by at least four feet. 

The order does not prohibit city government meetings. Among the events that it does cover, however, are those held at the city’s War Memorial and Performing Arts Center, which provides a venue for ballets, symphonies and other performances.

“The virus needs people to spread. It jumps from person to person, so by reducing the opportunity for that to happen, we can effectively slow the spread,” Dr. Grant Colfax, director of public health in San Francisco said in a statement on Saturday. 

Looking abroad, the government in Italy, which has become a hotspot for the virus with over 7,000 cases, this weekend took action to restrict the movement of people in a region of about 16 million residents in the north of the country.

Inslee said that he would attend a meeting on Sunday where the possibility of new “social distancing” requirements in the state of Washington would be discussed. 

Tara Lee, a spokesperson for his office, said around midday that officials were “discussing options” on possible measures, but would not likely have any final decisions on them before the end of the day. “I don’t have more information than that,” she added.

Inslee said that, so far, the public in Washington has responded well in listening to public health requests, with people staying home when they're feeling sick and teleworking when possible. “That's working,” he said. “But we may have to go to the next step.”

He said that the next step did not necessarily mean a widespread quarantine, but rather, that it could involve “reducing the number of social activities that are going on.”

The number of documented cases of Covid-19, which is a respiratory illness, has been rising in the U.S. by the day and was over 500 by Sunday, according to a tracking tool developed by researchers at Johns Hopkins University.

At least 21 people around the country have died from the Coronavirus. Eighteen of the reported fatalities have occurred in Washington, two in Florida and one in California. In Washington, all but two of the deaths have been linked to a nursing home east of Seattle.

In New York, the Department of Health on Sunday was reporting 105 cases of Covid-19, 82 of them in Westchester County, north of New York City. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that only eight people with the virus were in the hospital.

Cuomo, speaking on MSNBC on Sunday, referenced the aggressive restrictions on the movement of people that China had put in place to combat the disease.

“They basically closed everything down,” the governor said. “We're trying to avoid that in this country. Right? You could close everything down that would do the containment, but it would also be highly disruptive to the economy, to society.”

“The fear and the anxiety is greatly outpacing the reality,” Cuomo added. “We're fighting the fear even more than the virus, frankly.”

One of the many factors that complicates the evolving response effort is that there is still uncertainty over what portion of cases of Covid-19 may be asymptomatic, with some estimates suggesting 80% of people who have the virus may show no symptoms, or only mild symptoms.

But at the same time, seniors and people with underlying health conditions are believed to be especially vulnerable to the illness.

In Washington and elsewhere, public health officials have already recommended that people who are 60 and older or pregnant, as well as those with conditions like diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, or weakened immune systems, stay home and avoid large groups.

“Our chief concern is for vulnerable populations who are most at risk of getting very sick, or dying, if they get Covid-19,” said Colfax, the San Francisco health director.

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Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Route Fifty and is based in Olympia, Washington.

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