As the number of positive COVID-19 cases grows statewide, Spokane County and city of Spokane leaders have declared states of emergency to waive some of the requirements governments need to take action quickly.
County Commissioner Al French said going through normal procedures, such as an open bidding process or following the hours, shifts and schedules in their agreements with labor unions, could mean losing valuable time the county needs to adapt to rapidly changing circumstances.
“It’s not saying that as a county we’re in an emergency,” French said. “It’s to prepare and to get resources.”
Earlier Monday morning, county commissioners also voted to give county CEO Gerry Gemmill more authority to manage the county’s workforce, change hours or allow employees to work from home to reduce the risk of county employees being exposed to the virus.
Leaders of Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake declared an emergency Monday, which will allow them to buy needed supplies, gather funds or adjust hours quickly, but their city councils still need to ratify those decisions.
Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward’s emergency declaration gives her broad power to cancel events, close public spaces and direct city resources.
Woodward, under the law, even has the power to stop the sale of gasoline or “other flammable liquids” except for use in a motor vehicle. She can also order the closure of bars and other establishments that sell alcohol, or just outright ban the sale of alcohol. Woodward has given no indication that such strict orders are part of her plans.
Woodward has the authority to close any city street, park or other public space.
After she makes an emergency declaration, city law allows the mayor to order any business establishment “or other places of public assemblage to close.” The order can be in effect indefinitely.
The declaration also allows the city to circumvent its usual procurement processes and accept or receive aid from the federal or state government.
The Spokane City Council unanimously adopted a resolution on Monday ratifying, but amending, Woodward’s declaration. It clarifies that either Woodward or the council can terminate the emergency declaration and continue to take legislative action on its own.
“It gives the mayor the right to make quick decisions and quick actions and avoid some of the red tape,” Spokane City Council President Breean Beggs said.
Bob Lutz, the Spokane Regional Health District’s health officer, also has the authority to cancel events, as does the governor.
Commissioners voted to declare an emergency during a joint meeting Monday that included dozens of school, police and fire personnel, as well as elected officials from around the region and their staff.
The 60 or so attendees of that meeting had to answer a series of questions about their potential exposure to coronavirus from firefighters dressed in masks and gowns. The questions covered such subjects as whether attendees had recently traveled internationally, had a fever or had been exposed to someone with COVID-19. Everyone also had their temperature taken with a thermometer.
At least one attendee of the meeting and the following news conference, a Spokesman-Review employee, was turned away because of recent international travel.
During the meeting, Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich urged local leaders to “stay in their lanes,” and coordinate their response through the county’s Emergency Coordination Center. He and other leaders also urged the public to stay calm, help their neighbors and stop hoarding basic necessities from local grocery stores.
“This is our generation’s test. We are a strong nation, we are a strong community, a strong city, county,” he said. “We will get through this.”
In separate action Monday, the Spokane City Council tapped into city reserves to release funding for a new director of emergency management at City Hall.
City officials had signaled earlier this month they were working rapidly to hire a director of emergency management to lead the city’s internal response to emergencies, including the coronavirus pandemic.
Spokane Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer has served in the emergency management director role on an interim basis.
The council unanimously approved the special budget ordinance, pulling $152,800 from unappropriated reserves.
Simultaneously, the city is working to re-enter the county-led Greater Spokane Emergency Management agency, which leads the regional response to emergencies. Though the city’s agreement with the agency expired at the end of 2019, city officials said its leaders are continuing to collaborate with regional leaders.
On Monday, county leaders approved an agreement for the agency without the city of Spokane, but the city can be annexed into the county’s system later.
During their Monday meeting, the Spokane City Council also approved a 10-year lease on a new police precinct in the vacant former bank at the corner of Wall Street and Riverside Avenue on Monday. City officials indicated it could be used in the near term to house services or personnel related to the city’s coronavirus response.
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