SEATTLE, WA — Gov. Jay Inslee announced a ban on gatherings and events with more than 250 participants in Washington’s three most-populated counties, as the region works around the clock to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The World Health Organization officially declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic Wednesday morning, meaning it is an epidemic that has spread worldwide. Nearly 20,000 cases and hundreds of deaths are connected to the virus in Italy and Iran, with thousands of additional illnesses reported among South Korea, Spain, France and Germany.

According to John Hopkins University data, more than 1,100 cases have been confirmed in the United States as of Wednesday afternoon and at least 30 people have died. Washington state accounts for 24 of those deaths, with the majority of them linked to an outbreak at a Kirkland nursing home.

Latest: 366 Coronavirus Cases In Washington, 4 More Dead In King County

“This is not just your ordinary flu,” Inslee said. “This is a virus that experts tell us [is] at least 10 times more potentially fatal than the flu, and this demands a response consistent with the nature of the threat.”

Mandatory social distancing orders in three counties

Inslee announced that all public gatherings for social, recreational, spiritual or other reasons would be prohibited by his order in King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, effective immediately. Nearly 4 million people live among the counties affected.

The governor said events impacted by the ban include concerts, sporting events, festivals, fundraisers, parades, church services and other community gatherings. Social gatherings, including large parties and weddings, are also prohibited by the governor’s order. Grocery stores, restaurants, movie theaters, transit systems and airports are not affected by the rule, but they must take steps to minimize the spread of disease.

“We recognize this new limitation will impact thousands of people, their plans and their investments in these events,” Inslee said. “However, this is one of the most prudent choices we can make to keep people safe in this rapidly evolving health crisis. We want to do all we can to protect Washingtonians.”

The Associated Press reports the order will likely affect the Mariners’ first seven games of the Major League Baseball season, beginning March 26, and several scheduled home games for the Seattle Sounders MLS soccer team and the Seattle Dragons XFL football team.

Following the news briefing, the Sounders announced its March 21 match against FC Dallas would be rescheduled for a later date. The XFL announced the Dragons’ game Sunday against the Los Angeles Wildcats would continue as planned, without fans, at CenturyLink Field.

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Inslee did not indicate when the restrictions may be lifted and said the prohibition could expand in the days ahead, depending on the virus’s spread.

“This is an unprecedented public health situation, and we can’t wait until we’re in the middle of it to slow it down,” Inslee said. “We’ve got to get ahead of the curve. One main defense is to reduce the interaction of people in our lives.”

“This is an extremely dangerous event that we are facing, but we are not helpless,” Inslee said.

The governor underlined that the decision to enforce mandatory event cancellations was not an easy one but was reached with consensus among local leaders, health agencies and the federal government.

King County Executive Dow Constantine said he would sign an additional order banning events with fewer than 250 people, unless organizers can meet a series of requirements provided by public health officials. Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers said his office would mirror those actions, to keep the rules consistent across county borders.

New requirements for organizers of events with fewer than 250 people:

School districts advised to plan for potential closures

Inslee said he was not currently planning for widespread school closures, but his office has directed school districts to craft contingency plans in the event closures become necessary. Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for King County, said schools should be prepared for closures that may last for “weeks to months.”

School districts in Seattle, Bellevue, Shoreline and Lake Washington announced two-week, districtwide closures beginning Thursday.

Enforcement actions

Constantine said enforcement of the ban would largely be based upon complaints received from the community reporting potential violations. Inslee underlined that Wednesday’s action was an official order and that breaking the rules would make a person liable for penalties.

The King County Sheriff’s Office urged residents not to call 911 to report gatherings, asking them to instead direct complaints to public health officials via email, at

Beyond breaking the law, Inslee said, the real consequences of violating the order are likely to have real impacts on people’s lives.

“The penalties are: You might be killing your grandad if you don’t do it,” Inslee said.

Seattle cruise season postponed

The beginning of Seattle’s cruise season will be postponed at least two weeks, the Port of Seattle announced Wednesday, canceling the first two sailings of the year on April 1 and April 5. An April 15 departure remains scheduled, but port officials said further cancellations may become necessary, depending on the evolving public health situation.

Learn more about the ban on public gatherings on the King County website.