PORT ANGELES — Clallam County officials have stressed to residents not to police others when it comes to social distancing or wearing masks in public.
County officials said during their COVID-19 briefing Monday they’re getting public complaints about people being too close to each other or not wearing masks, and about homeless people being too close together.
“There’s reports of people yelling at strangers,” said county Health Officer Dr. Allison Berry Unthank. “You don’t need to police other people.”
Meanwhile, Jefferson County commissioners heard concerns about people coming from outside the community, either staying in vacation rentals or airbnbs.
County Health Officer Dr. Tom Locke said Monday during a weekly briefing that the county is telling owners of vacation rentals it is “not a legal activity at this time” with the governor’s stay-at-home order, and the county is asking innkeepers to ask customers if they are booking rooms as part of an essential activity.
“It probably violates the letter of the governor’s order and certainly violates the spirit,” Locke said.
Over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) changed its recommendation on wearing masks. The federal agency had earlier recommended not wearing masks but now suggests cloth coverings when people go to public places such as grocery stores.
Unthank stressed that while masks can help, they are not required.
“Cloth masks are not a mandate,” she said. “It’s not OK to police your neighbors.
“Masks are not the law. There’s enough stress in the world without adding to it.”
Unthank said police officers are not going to stop people for not wearing a mask.
“Keeping that distance between us, that is so far working,” she said.
Unthank said that while it’s reasonable for people to take an extra measure of protection by wearing a cloth mask when going out in public, it’s more important to maintain physical distance from others.
“If you’re not within 6 feet of someone, they can’t give you COVID-19,” she said.
Unthank also stressed that people should not go out and get medical masks or high-tech N95 masks because medical professionals need them.
The CDC has recommendations on how people can make masks from T-shirts or other cloth.
Locke also stressed not to buy surgical masks.
“It’s critically important to conserve N95 and surgical masks,” he said.
There continued to be no new cases in Clallam County on Monday and only eight confirmations so far. Jefferson County has 25, bringing the total on the North Olympic Peninsula to 33.
“We’ve been at eight positives for a week,” Unthank said. “Our rate of positive tests has gone down [to 1.5 percent].”
Unthank said one interesting effect of the state’s social distancing guidelines is that there has been a dramatic decrease in the number of influenza cases.
“We prematurely ended the flu season,” she said.
She also said people can’t drop their guard despite the local success.
“We know COVID-19 is nearby,” Unthank said. “We have to stay vigilant.”
Also discussed during the Clallam County briefing were complaints about homeless people congregating in the community, in particular at the Salvation Army.
“We need to have some compassion,” Unthank said. “Especially with a vulnerable population. They’re not a danger to you. People in our community who are homeless are also scared of COVID-19.”
Locke said that, despite the concern about vacation rentals, the county does not plan to send law enforcement to check on renters. He said some could be exchange students, medical professionals seeking to avoid contact with their families or others who have valid reasons for renting rooms or homes.
“I don’t think that’s a reasonable use of law enforcement,” Locke said. “We’re asking people to self-police.”
Locke said new models from the University of Washington show the COVID-19 cases in the state could peak in mid-April, but that peak in rural areas such as the North Olympic Peninsula likely will be toward the end of the month.
“And that’s if we do everything right,” Locke said. “The risk of exposure will go up and up all through April.
“We are now in April, and April will be the worst month. It hasn’t really hit at [Jefferson Healthcare] yet, but we have every reason to believe it will.”
Jefferson County Emergency Operations Director Willie Bence said the county has set up a hotline for people who are stressed out or having problems with social isolation at 1-888-910-0416.
He also said the county also has a link for people who want to make and donate masks. It can be found at tinyurl.com/PDN-MakeMasks.
Bence stressed now is not the time to let up despite some data that show the curve of new cases may be flattening.
“Please don’t prematurely celebrate,” Bence said. “Don’t get excited. This is a marathon, not a sprint.”