March 11 (UPI) -- Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday banned all gatherings of more than 250 people in the three counties at the epicenter of the United States' outbreak of the coronavirus.
The restriction went into effect immediately in King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, which include the cities of Seattle, Everett and Tacoma. The order affects nearly 4 million people in the metropolitan area.
"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 at a news conference announcing the ban. "We've got to get ahead of the curve. One main defense is to reduce the interaction of people in our lives."
He was joined by county and city leaders, and local health officials.
The Washington Health Department says 24 people have died from COVID-19 in the state and another 267 have been sickened. King County has taken the brunt of the virus' impact in the state, with 22 deaths.
U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Director Robert Redfield said 31 people have died in the United States as of Wednesday afternoon. Johns Hopkins University says there have been more than 1,000 confirmed cases.
The World Health Organization has declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic, with more than 118,000 cases in 114 countries and a death toll of more than 4,300.
Inslee said the ban on large gatherings includes, but is not limited to community, civic, public, leisure, faith-based or sporting events; parades; concerts; festivals; conventions; and fundraisers.
In addition to avoiding large gatherings, Inslee recommended people stay at least 6 feet away from each other, work from home if possible, frequently clean and sanitize surfaces as they use them, and bump elbows instead of shaking hands.
"We support the governor's actions to slow the spread of this virus so the healthcare system has time to respond," Cassie Sauer, president of the Washington Hospital Association said.
Inslee didn't call for widespread school closures but did ask districts to make contingency plans in case facilities need to close for multiple weeks.
Seattle Public Schools, though, announced a minimum 14-day closure of all schools Wednesday afternoon. The closure, which begins Thursday, affects all school buildings, including childcare, health services and enrichment.
SPS said it will implement an emergency food plan for students beginning Monday.
"The decision to close the district was extremely difficult," a statement from the district said. "We know that closing our schools will impact our most vulnerable families and we recognize that working families depend on the consistency and predictability of supports and services our schools offer. We are working with partners and the city to determine how to best mitigate the impact closing schools will have on working families. "
Inslee's announcement is the most restrictive ban on public gatherings in the United States since the start of the coronavirus outbreak, but other organizations, schools, companies and sports teams have announced cancellations and other safety measures in recent days.
The city of San Francisco prohibited all gatherings of more than 1,000 people, meaning all Golden State Warriors home games will be played before an empty arena. The San Francisco Giants also canceled an upcoming exhibition came against the Oakland A's.