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Washington state governor bans events with more than 250 people in three counties struck by virus

Washington Gov. Jay InsleeJay Robert InsleeWashington county warns of at least 17 positive tests after 300-person wedding The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by UAE - US records 1 million COVID-19 cases in a week; governors crack down Washington state issues sweeping restrictions to combat coronavirus surge MORE (D) banned events of more than 250 people in three counties on Wednesday but noted more restrictions could be implemented if the coronavirus continues to spread.

"This is an extremely dangerous event that we are facing, but we are not helpless," Inslee said at a press conference.

"These are not easy decisions. The decisions that we're making today and the decisions we probably will be making in the upcoming days are going to be profoundly disturbing to a lot of the ways we live our lives today," he added. "But I believe they are the right ones."

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Events and gatherings that are prohibited through the end of March include religious services, sporting events, parades, concerts, festivals and fundraisers.

It is likely the restrictions will be extended into next month, Inslee said.

The restrictions, which apply to King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, represent some of the most drastic measures a state government has taken to slow the spread of the coronavirus. 

The state has 267 confirmed cases, but Inslee conceded there are likely “hundreds if not thousands” of people in Washington who have the virus but don’t know it. 

Officials in Washington say they are past the point of containing the virus and are now trying to mitigate it, slowing its spread so as not to overburden hospitals. 

“There is no magic silver bullet at the moment medically, but there is a very successful effort that we can take to slow the spread of this disease and that's to reduce the social interactions that are not necessary in our lives,” Inslee said. 

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Inslee said he hopes the action Washington is taking will set a template for other cities and states experiencing outbreaks. 

“Unfortunately, we know that the rest of the nation will be where we are perhaps in a couple or three weeks,” he said. 

Inslee’s announcement came just after the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a pandemic, meaning the virus has sustained spread on at least two continents. More than 121,000 cases have been confirmed worldwide, including 1,050 in the U.S., according to Johns Hopkins University.

More cases in the U.S. have been identified in recent days, partly due to increased testing by commercial and public health labs.

Inslee urged companies to allow their employees to work from home, an option he noted is not possible for everyone, particularly service workers. But employers should take precautions to ensure spaces are not crowded.

“We do not want to see people shoulder to shoulder in bars. That is unacceptable,” Inslee said.

Inslee said more guidance for schools would come soon, but asked districts to begin planning for potential closures.

Inslee painted a dire picture of what could happen in Washington if health officials didn’t act immediately to limit social interactions, with an estimated 60,000 cases by May.

Local health officials in the three counties are also requiring that gatherings of fewer than 250 people meet specific public health guidelines to limit the spread of the virus. The restrictions don't apply to restaurants, grocery stores or family events. 

"We are seeking to take a targeted approach that still recognizes that it can be safe and it is vitally important for our economy to function," said King County Executive Dow Constantine. 

"Business can and must continue. Restaurants, retail, music, arts, culture, movie and theaters can and should continue if they are able to meet these criteria."

Updated at 2:21 pm.