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News >  Washington

Gregoire: Business leaders shifted focus to fight COVID-19 as the outbreak began to take hold

UPDATED: Tue., May 19, 2020

Former Gov. Chris Gregoire, shown here in 2018, spoke Tuesday at Northwest Passages community forum, where she predicted “we’re going to have a new normal,” even after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)
Former Gov. Chris Gregoire, shown here in 2018, spoke Tuesday at Northwest Passages community forum, where she predicted “we’re going to have a new normal,” even after a COVID-19 vaccine is developed. (Dan Pelle / The Spokesman-Review)

When COVID-19 began to establish an early foothold in America’s Northwest corner, a group of Seattle-area business executives shifted from its efforts to expand the regional economy to find a way to fight the virus.

Challenge Seattle, which includes chief executive officers from some of the area’s largest businesses and nonprofits, was about five years into an effort of finding ways for the private sector to “give back” to the community on things like transportation, education and technology, Chris Gregoire, former governor and currently the CEO for the organization, said Tuesday in an interview conducted as part of the Northwest Passages community forum.

Northwest Passages Virtual Forum / The Spokesman-Review

It had some advantages in recognizing the seriousness of the virus, Gregoire said. Seattle is home to some major international companies, and two of them, Microsoft and Starbucks, have major operations in China, where COVID-19 started. They also had access to some modeling from medical research that raised concerns about the possible spread.

They quickly came to the conclusion the region needed to start preparing for a significant outbreak, Gregoire said. The executives decided they had to communicate the seriousness to their employees, about 250,000 total, but based on science, data and facts.

They began reaching out to other businesses and the rest of the community, trying to help increase the blood supply and acquire personal protective equipment.

“We have created a unique public-private partnership that is not just for Seattle but literally for the whole state,” Gregoire said.

The daily noon conference calls continued, and have grown to about 250 people, including business leaders from Spokane and experts from Washington State University. They get briefings from public health experts and from state and local officials who are about to make a public announcement about government action and want feedback.

“We welcomed anyone who was a business representative. We didn’t allow any politicians,” Gregoire said.

But she thinks the executives in Challenge Seattle would give city, county and state officials high marks for taking decisive action. While some have criticized her successor, Gov. Jay Inslee, as being too conservative in reopening the economy, she said his decisions are based on science, data and experts, not politics and rumors.

Washington was able to bend the curve of COVID-19 better than many states. That does raise expectations among some in the state to reopen faster.

“I worry about it, because we’ve gone back and studied the 1918 pandemic and what happened after,” she said. “We can’t find any pandemic where there weren’t waves.”

Washington needs to takes some lessons from the pandemic as it considers the future. Its public health system is too fragile, too many of the supplies it needs to fight the virus come from foreign countries and its food supply chain is tenuous.

Until there’s a universal vaccine for COVID-19, the state needs to be prepared for waves of the virus that may call for a return to stricter business limitations and social distancing, Gregoire said.

But even when that vaccine is available, “I still think we’re going to have a new normal,” she said.

Many businesses will opt to have more employees work from home and not have a downtown office, with more meetings by teleconference instead of in person. Shaking hands might not be so common.

“I don’t think we’re going back pre-COVID,” she said. “I think we’ve learned some things that we ought to continue.”

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