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News >  Spokane

Regional approach to reopening Washington takes shape as local Spokane elected officials push for fast-tracked plan

UPDATED: Mon., May 4, 2020

By Jim Camden Rebecca White and Arielle Dreher The Spokesman-Review

Washington state’s regional reopening plan began to take shape on Monday, after Gov. Jay Inslee released the state’s Safe Start phases. Tuesday, Phase 1 of the plan begins with outdoor recreational activities like hunting, fishing, hiking and golfing resuming; however, all gatherings are still prohibited statewide, and travel is limited to essential trips only.

Specific industries that are listed for reopening in Phase 1 of the plan, such as auto sales and landscaping, can’t open until they have safety guidelines in place, however. The guidelines are being worked out with representatives of various industries and will be published soon, said Nick Streuli, an Inslee spokesman.

“We’re hoping to get them out as fast as we can,” he said.

Ten counties in Washington can fast-track their reopening plans and request a variance from the state to skip ahead to Phase 2. The counties all have had very few or no cases of COVID-19 and account for less than 3% of the state’s population. To apply for a variance, a county must have a recommendation from their health officer, the local board of health’s vote of approval, support from the county commissioners and a statement from local hospitals supporting the decision.

State officials said they expect to be able to approve or reject plans within a few days after they arrive from the small counties that want to reopen parts of their economy early. The variance plans can request to move ahead with some or all types of businesses in the second phase of what Gov. Jay Inslee has called the state’s Safe Start program.

Along with three weeks with no new cases of COVID-19, the counties will need to have adequate testing, plans for care and containment of new cases as they arise, the ability to trace the contacts those people have had with others, and plans for isolation and quarantine of new cases.

Those 10 counties don’t have to apply for a faster reopening if their health officials and county commissioners don’t want to.

Pend Oreille and Ferry counties are eligible to apply for variances, and on Monday, the Northeast Tri-County Health District Board of Health approved a resolution to request variance from the governor’s plan for all three counties it represents, with the caveat that Stevens County be free of new COVID-19 cases for three weeks as well prior to beginning the Phase 2 process.

In total, there have been a dozen confirmed COVID-19 cases in the Tri-County region, with nine cases in Stevens County. Ferry County has one confirmed case so far, and Pend Oreille County has two.

Local commissioners in those three counties are expected to meet and discuss support for the move on Tuesday, as local health officials finish the plans they must submit to state health officials that outline testing capacity, ability to contact trace and isolate cases as well as manage a potential outbreak.

“We want to make sure that for our population and our folks that we’re diligent about this, and we take the necessary precautions,” Matt Schanz, administrator at the Northeast Tri-County Health District, said.

Schanz said he has reached out to hospitals in the district, asking for the required documentation. Ideally, he said, when each county’s commission approves the plan, the health district will be ready with its detailed outline to submit to the state as early as Tuesday.

Within the next two weeks, state officials will release a new set of criteria to allow some other counties to move to the next phase of reopening before the rest of the state. It could involve a low number of cases per capita, but those details haven’t been worked out.

“We’ve had a lot of requests from various sized counties for different things,” said David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff. “We are no longer in a single statewide system and we’ve decided that’s OK right now.”

That could create a patchwork across the state of counties in different stages of reopening, which is a response to areas of the state that have called for a more regionalized approach, Postman said.

“I don’t know if there will be somebody we’ll leave behind if we all move forward,” Postman said. “If there are counties that have large outbreaks still, that may hold us all back, depending on what that looks like.”

Spokane elected officials push for faster re-opening

Leaders in the Spokane area want to move faster into Phase 2 of the governor’s plan, or through a new process if there is a special session.

While addressing a group of stay-home protesters that gathered at the courthouse on Friday, Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich and County Commission Chairman Al French called for protestors to urge their state elected officials to call for a special session to end the order.

“This stay-at-home order, it didn’t come from Spokane, it came from Olympia,” French said Friday, “So you know where it’s going to stop? It’s going to stop in Olympia. It’s either going to stop by the Governor or as Ozzie (Knezovich) said, there’s checks and balances.”

On Monday, French said he was planning to apply through the state’s Safe Start program, or look for other ways, such as writing to the governor with other commissioners or asking legislators to take action, to try and get the Spokane area and several counties north of Spokane, open sooner.

“We don’t want to put anybody at risk, but at some point, the risk of being unemployed is greater than the risk of getting sick,” French said.

He said the region could continue social distancing and follow other stay-at-home protocols in effect during every stage of the governor’s plan. He said if businesses needed assistance acquiring PPE or testing while reopening, the county may consider tapping into the $90 million in federal aid it received from the CARES Act Congress passed in March.

Commissioners have sent a number of letters to the governor asking to open the construction industry and for critical non-COVID-19 medical appointments, retailers with ability for door or curbside or appointment options, auto and RV sales, landscaping, mobile home hook-up and in-home cleaning to be allowed to continue.

Commissioner Mary Kuney, who did not address the protesters Friday, said in a text Monday that she would like the region’s economy to open sooner, and she is continuing to advocate that approach to the governor.

Both Kuney and Spokane County Commissioner Josh Kerns said they were also open to using some of the additional $90 million in Federal COVID-19 aid to assist businesses acquiring PPE, or with testing.

Kerns said the stay-home order had become an “extinction level event” for many small businesses in the Spokane area, and he believed that with social distancing, additional sanitation as well as other precautions, it is possible to reopen sooner than some of the governor’s phases.

Pointing to the few new deaths and hospitalizations from COVID-19, Kerns said Spokane isn’t like other parts around the state and there likely is a way to allow business to return safely.

Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward is also hoping for an earlier opening for businesses than the Safe Start plan if there are no spikes in cases during the early stages. Woodward said local elected officials will be petitioning the governor for Spokane County to move to Phase 2 sooner. She said during a briefing Monday morning that she had a Tuesday call planned with the governor to discuss the proposal.

“We will continue to push our governor for more flexibility in opening up our businesses in Spokane County,” she said.

Health officials urge cautious approach

Despite local officials’ calls to push for a quicker reopening in Spokane County, Dr. Bob Lutz said he would be looking to the state guidelines that say a minimum three-week period should be observed between phases, as prescribed by the governor’s plan.

“We will certainly look to see if we can move any faster, again, I think that’s where you’ve heard from others where we’re looking at a regional approach, but again the data have to drive the decisions,” Lutz told reporters Monday.

Spokane County currently has 374 cases, with six new cases confirmed over the weekend, and 22 deaths due to the respiratory virus. Ten people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19. Counties applying for a variance from the state’s plan, like Ferry and Pend Oreille counties, have not had new reported cases of COVID-19 for at least three weeks, however.

The three-week interval between phases is the time health officials believe is needed to determine that the new changes aren’t causing the virus to spring back. Dr. John Wiesman, secretary of the state Department of Health, said the incubation period of the virus can be as long as 14 days, and it may take another week for new cases to show up in the data.

“We want to be data driven on this issue,” Wiesman said.

Three weeks gives state officials the time needed to determine whether the changes resulted in the data holding steady, decreasing or “increasing the number of cases and risk,” he said.

It would also provide time to evaluate any impact and make any necessary changes.

Gov. Inslee’s extended “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order goes through May 31, and Phase 2 of the Safe Start program for most counties is likely scheduled to begin June 1, although if could start earlier if cases fall far enough, Wiesman said.

Arielle Dreher's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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