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Opinion: Why we can’t trust the latest reopening plan from Washington Republicans

Protesters in Olympia in April 2020. (Getty Images)

With vaccinations trending up and case rates trending down, states like Texas have taken that as their cue to fully reopen. Now, Washington state’s own Republicans are pushing for the same.

WA health officials caution against growing push to quickly reopen

The Republican proposal unveiled this week would first move all counties in the state into Phase 3 of reopening, and have all restaurants, bars, gyms, movie theaters, and entertainment venues operate at 50% capacity. If there’s “no significant spike” in hospitalizations over the ensuing three weeks, everything returns to 100% capacity. If a county doesn’t feel comfortable moving forward, they’d have to “demonstrate why based on trends in case and hospital admission rates.”

But given that Republicans across the state have led calls to reopen since the very start of the pandemic, why should we trust this latest push?

Remember when then-Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman participated in a protest in Olympia in April 2020, weeks after the first stay-at-home orders came down in Washington? In virtually every month to follow, the party’s stated position has loudly and frequently resided in the “reopen everything quickly” camp. That included several subsequent protests and rallies, including another one featuring Eyman in June, and one in December led by Republican state Rep. Vicki Kraft.

Despite that, state health officials have largely managed to stave off that push, a strategy that’s seen Washington boast the fourth lowest rate of COVID-19 cases in the country over the course of the pandemic.

So what should be the strategy moving forward?

In the press release for the state GOP’s proposal, it trumpets how “Republicans DO have a plan,” as if going against the advice of nearly every qualified health expert qualifies as anything less than a political ploy. But the recklessness — and the insidiousness — of their “plan” goes far deeper than that.

The roadmap bafflingly decides to employ a single metric to determine whether the state can move from 50% to 100% after three weeks: hospitalizations. As has been made abundantly clear by the numerous waves we’ve experienced over the last year, increases in hospitalizations and deaths almost always lag behind spikes in cases by weeks.

Under the Republican plan, cases could spike back up over the three weeks we’d spend at 50%, and we would only see the inevitable increase in hospitalizations right around the same time we’re fully reopening. That means one of two things: Either their proposal inadvertently fails to account for the fact that hospitalizations are in fact the worst metric to single out without context, or it zeros in on hospitalizations intentionally, knowing that by the time they do increase, it’ll be too late for us to realize that we shouldn’t have reopened at 100%.

In every instance where we’ve relaxed restrictions, cases — and subsequently, deaths and hospitalizations — have risen in kind. The fact that we now have three FDA-approved vaccines changes that math significantly, and to give up and reopen before those vaccines can actually make a significant difference is irresponsible at best.

“We’re in mile 21 [of 26] of a marathon right now,” Washington’s deputy secretary for its COVID response said Thursday. “The finish line is there, and it’s not time to slow down or give up — we’ve got to go through to the finish.”

Ross: It’s time to start balancing science of reopening with our needs

That means there’s a universe where vaccines are available to everyone by the end of spring. We could even have a chance at something resembling a normal summer, where we can feel safe eating out at restaurant, seeing a live show, or simply gathering together with friends. Businesses that have been struggling mightily over the last year could finally be able to comfortably reopen, sans the ever-looming threat of a new wave of cases shutting them down again.

That’s not some far-off hypothetical, either — that’s an eventuality mere months away that can only be derailed by our own impatience. Don’t let the politicizing of reopening cloud the actual science behind achieving that goal. More than that, don’t put your trust in the people who have been denying the dangers of this virus since it first arrived on our shores.

Questions, comments, or feedback? Follow Nick Bowman on Twitter at @NickNorthwest to weigh in, or reach him by email at [email protected]

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