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COVID-19

News >  Spokane

Spokane-area leaders discuss masks, rent, housing issues during first telephone town hall

UPDATED: Wed., April 8, 2020

State Sen. Andy Billig, front, answers telephone questions from the public during a regional town hall meeting Wednesday. (Rebecca White / The Spokesman-Review)
State Sen. Andy Billig, front, answers telephone questions from the public during a regional town hall meeting Wednesday. (Rebecca White / The Spokesman-Review)

Local public officials faced questions about whether a federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation to wear a mask or face covering would be enforced and what leaders were doing about housing issues and rent during local leaders’ first community town hall Wednesday.

More than 200 people tuned in on Facebook to watch the meeting, which included Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward, Spokane Valley Mayor Ben Wick, state Sen. Andy Billig, Spokane County Commissioner Al French and county Health Officer Bob Lutz.

Several people who called into the town hall, which was broadcast on both Facebook and City Cable 5, asked local officials whether they would be fined for not wearing masks, when to use them and how to sanitize them. The CDC recently recommended wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores and pharmacies, especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

None of the local officials advocated fining members of the public for not wearing them, and none called for law enforcement to fine people for leaving home for nonessential reasons.

French said local leaders are relying on people to voluntarily comply with a statewide stay-home order to avoid unintentionally spreading the disease to others.

“At this point, we rely on trust, that folks out there are being honest, that they are taking care of essential business, not just out there casually engaged in activities,” French said. “I hope we don’t get to the point that we’re requiring documentation.”

Wick said cities are relying on community members to voluntarily wear masks.

Every member of the panel had a mask with them, they said.

“We’re all trying to do our part,” Wick said. “We’re asking people to be respectful, wear the mask to prevent the spread of the disease to others and just really encouraging people to step up.”

Other members of the public asked whether masks are reusable and if they can be sanitized.

Lutz said homemade fabric masks can be washed like other clothing, and he recommended that people consult the CDC website for further information.

City officials also answered questions about rent control and housing issues.

One man who said he lives on Social Security and recently lost his second source of income as an Uber driver shared the story of his landlord raising his rent by $40 a month during the COVID-19 crisis, saying he knows many others are in the same situation.

Another man called for rent control, saying some landlords are still going forward with increases despite soaring unemployment.

Mayor Nadine Woodward, who recently signed a citywide eviction and foreclosure moratorium, said she has been in discussions aboutrental assistance, rent control and a resource helpline, but she did not have specifics.

“I completely understand the hardship,” Woodward said. “We’re hearing from many constituents who are experiencing the same thing.”

Woodward noted those who are unable to pay all their bills can receive assistance for utilities by connecting with the city’s Uhelp program.

As for rent control, Woodward said she planned to discuss the subject with City Council while also stating that landlords need a level playing field.

“We understand that this is a tough issue because we want to listen to our renters, our tenants, and we want to listen to our property owners,” she said. “We can also acknowledge that we have some property owners in the city of Spokane, a very small percentage, that are problem landlords. We need to deal with those landlords on an individual basis, but we need to balance the rights of the landlords and the property along with the tenants.”

Several members of the public also asked when the order barring residential construction would be lifted.

Woodward said she wrote a letter asking Gov. Jay Inslee to reconsider the ban after hearing from homeowners who had already sold their home and were in the process of building a new house when the business and construction shutdowns were ordered.

Woodward said there are ways to social distance while building a house and that allowing people to return to construction sites could allow a small sector of the economy to function during the ongoing crisis.

Other local governments, including Spokane County and Spokane Valley, have discussed, or agreed to sign onto, the letter asking residential construction to be allowed to continue.

Billig said his office has heard from many businesses that say they should be considered an essential business and allowed to continue. But he argued that allowing too many businesses to start back up, even if they do social distance, could spread the virus further.

“The concern is that if you let all of those businesses be essential businesses, then you have the potential to expose more people, which could actually lengthen the health crisis and slow economic recovery,” Billig said. “It’s about getting the balance right and that’s why, I think, the governor has taken a cautious approach.”

Billig said there could be room to loosen the restrictions and that construction should be one of the first industries to come back as the number of cases continues to decline.

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