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‘Frustrated with it all’: As Whitman County returns to Phase 2, COVID-19 cases at WSU Pullman decline

COLFAX – For Pete Koerner, the biggest challenge now with running the Top Notch Cafe in Colfax is “just trying to keep the doors open, man.”

That didn’t get any easier Friday, the first day for Whitman County’s return to Phase 2 of the state’s COVID-19 reopening plan.

Whitman County, along with Cowlitz and Pierce counties, will spend at least the next three weeks under Phase 2 restrictions instead of the less restrictive Phase 3. Phase 2 calls for 25% capacity limits in restaurants, gyms and bars.

Koerner, who runs Top Notch with his wife, Candis, kept customers who stopped for lunch Friday afternoon spaced a booth apart.

“I’m just frustrated,” he said. “Frustrated with it all.”

Whitman County’s Phase 2 return was largely driven by an increase in COVID-19 cases out of the city of Pullman, which makes up roughly 70% of the county’s population. Approximately 87% of countywide cases in the latest recorded 14-day period were attributed to Pullman residents, according to Whitman County Public Health.

A few blocks from Top Notch Cafe, 10’s the limit for the number of shoppers at the Thrifty Grandmother’s Shop.

Christina Thompson set the limit figuring the store could hold anywhere from 30 to 40 people at a time. Revenue has remained steady in the past year regardless of capacity, said Thompson, president of the Colfax Thrifty Grandmothers Club.

Thompson said the shop faced its toughest challenges early (it was closed from March through May 2020). After overhead costs, the store’s revenue is doled out to various causes and community groups in Whitman County.

“It’s kind of interesting how people are very loyal to our store,” she said. “The pandemic hasn’t really hurt us.”

Thompson said everyone in the county, not just Pullman, should take the return to Phase 2 seriously.

“Your individual actions impact the community,” she said. “For all the people that don’t want to wear masks, they’re not thinking of their neighbor.”

‘We all know what we need to do’

At this point, the way back to Phase 3 lies in sticking with COVID-19 guidelines as more people get vaccinated, said Bailey Maykovich, vice president of public relations for WSU’s Panhellenic Council, a student-run organization.

As of Thursday, COVID-19 vaccines are available to all Washington residents 16 or older.

“I think that that’s something that our community as a whole is dealing with and other communities across the country are dealing with as well,” Maykovich said, “and it all just comes back to asking everyone to keep following those key behaviors.”

COVID-19 cases associated with WSU’s Pullman campus have been on the decline this week, according to WSU Pullman’s COVID-19 dashboard, with the university recording 95 cases over the past two weeks as of Thursday. That’s down from the high for the month, 205 cases, recorded April 5.

Throughout the pandemic, WSU’s Panhellenic Council, Multicultural Greek Council, Panhellenic Council and Interfraternity Council – in partnership with the Center for Fraternity and Sorority Life – suspended social events to help prevent campuswide spreading.

“We encourage reporting of anything and everything that could be considered a violation, and then we go through it,” Maykovich said. “However, we work in partnership with the university and the Pullman Police Department, so it totally depends on what the violation is deemed as, who’s handling it and what guidelines are being followed.”

As WSU Pullman’s cases have declined over the past week, countywide positives outside of the campus have gone up. There were 74 cases recorded over a two-week period as of Thursday, according to the university dashboard, up from 41 cases recorded the week before.

This despite an order installed April 2 by county Public Health limiting outdoor social gatherings in Pullman to no more than 10 people. Phase 3 limits such gatherings to 50, while Phase 2 sets the bar at 15.

Pullman police Chief Gary Jenkins said law enforcement has taken “an education, then enforcement” approach with upholding the April 2 restriction.

If there’s a complaint, Jenkins said officers first inform those involved of the limitations in place. Repeat offenders could face a civil infraction in violation of the city’s nuisance party ordinance. Offenders could face a $250 fine with the first violation, then $500 for subsequent violations.

Earlier this week, Jenkins said police had not yet cited anyone with a civil infraction for a violation of the Public Health order.

“We have a really good collaboration here in the county between the university and our health care providers and the health department and the city,” Jenkins said. “We all know what we need to do to move out of Phase 2 and move forward.”

And while most reports of possible Public Health order violations have come from near the WSU Pullman campus, the police chief said the department has seen “really good compliance” overall from WSU students.

“We’ve seen some really good leadership from the student groups and the students themselves,” Jenkins said, “but just because it’s a big percentage of our population, that’s the number that’s going to jump out.”