The Washington State Department of Agriculture will close its offices across the state to the public beginning Wednesday, but will continue to answer phones and do field work, agency spokesman Hector Castro said Tuesday.

The department also plans to continue administering tests in Olympia and Yakima for pesticide applicators, but will hold tests in larger rooms with fewer test-takers, Castro said. "We don't want people elbow-to-elbow. That's the last thing we want," he said.

The department announced the office closures after Gov. Jay Inslee ordered most private businesses to close to slow the spread of COVID-19. Agriculture, food processing, transportation and veterinarians are among the sectors deemed essential and exempt from the emergency proclamation.

The business-closing order goes into effect midnight March 25 and expires midnight April 6. The order could be extended, according to the governor's office. 

The agriculture department has a workforce of 750 to 900, depending on the season, including about 200 to 250 who are based in the department's Olympia headquarters, Castro said. The department's other offices include regional offices in Spokane and Yakima. No department workers are being furloughed, Castro said. 

Many employees will work for home, he said. The department also plans to cut back on routine food-safety inspections to minimize contact with the public, he said.

Department employees who must work in the field, such as grain or brand inspectors, are being told to practice social distancing, Castro said.

"Our goal is to limit the transmission of this virus, while still doing the work to maintain agriculture," he said.

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