PORT ANGELES — As COVID-19 cases increase in Clallam County, the board of health this week recommended residents wear cloth face masks in public and employers follow state law that mandates employees wear face coverings in the workplace.
“I encourage that every one of us wear a mask that can,” Dr. Allison Unthank, county health officer, said Tuesday at the board meeting.
“If someone is not wearing a mask, give them 6 feet” to prevent transmission of COVID-19.
Clallam County coronavirus cases increased by six over the last week — 18 percent — remaining at 33 as of Wednesday compared with 32 in Jefferson County, the first time Clallam has exceeded its neighbor in number of confirmed cases.
The board also set aside potential plans to reopen county parks to overnight camping, given “all the cautionary flags” from recent pandemic testing data and “significant” health concerns over the Makah Tribe’s Neah Bay population, health board member and county commissioners’ Chairman Mark Ozias said Wednesday.
At a special meeting June 30, the board of health will reconsider allowing camping and will discuss moving to Phase 3 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan that would further relax restrictions on business and other activities.
Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer, said Wednesday the county’s board of health likely will discuss today allowing overnight camping at county parks, which have been closed to coordinate with Clallam’s restrictions.
“I’m leaning toward it,” Locke said of favoring reopening parks to overnight visitors.
He said county commissioners may vote Friday on further relaxing restrictions by voting for a move to Phase 3.
Participants in the Clallam County Board of Health meeting were headed in the opposite direction Tuesday.
Makah Tribal Chairman Timothy Greene opened the meeting by saying tribal members who must travel outside the reservation boundaries for goods and services already are at high risk for the virus without easing camping restrictions.
He said visitors are illegally camping with increasing frequency on roadsides leading to the Neah Bay reservation, which is closed to visitors and cuts off access to popular Cape Flattery.
“There really isn’t the capacity to enforce what’s already in place,” Greene said, adding that non-tribal members already walk around barriers at the reservation’s entrance.
Unthank said she would be uncomfortable moving to Phase 3 at least until June 29, noting Clallam County has moved from a 1 percent positive test rate to 2.7 percent.
She was concerned that, for example, large graduation parties recently took place against state Health and Human Services’ recommendation.
“It’s very concerning to me in the last week or so to really see a change in behavior in our population.
“The rise in cases makes be concerned that we are at a significant risk of an outbreak.
“We are seeing a lot of businesses that aren’t following a lot of the guidelines for reopening,” she said.
As of June 8, employees have been required by Gov. Jay Inslee to wear face coverings unless they work alone or have no interaction with others. Businesses must provide cloth face coverings for employees and post signage “strongly encouraging” customers and clients to follow suit.
Employees can use their own face coverings if they meet minimum requirements. (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-FaceMasks).
“We are seeing more businesses who are deciding to not follow the rules, so we are having to do more outreach with them, and then actually referring them to [the state Department of] Labor and Industries to actually fine them and potentially pull business licenses and things like that,” Unthank said.
“I’ve been disappointed by the lack of mask-wearing in public, including in businesses.
“It is the law that people have to mask, as employees.”
Unthank said her two-person COVID-19 team is prioritizing outreach efforts on high-risk businesses that are most likely to cause an outbreak.
Unsuccessful efforts to obtain voluntary compliance could lead to Health and Human Services revoking a permit and, if an outbreak occurs, shutting it down, she said.
“We do have the authority to revoke the permit,” she said.
Efforts at voluntary compliance have been more of a challenge than she had hoped, Unthank added.
The Clallam County Board of Health’s resolution recognizes masks limit the spread of respiratory droplets and aerosols from infected individuals who may be asymptomatic, which accounts for 35 percent of all infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (https://tinyurl.com/PDN-AsymptomaticSpread).
The resolution requires all individuals “who are able to wear a cloth mask or face covering do so when in public spaces, especially when it may not be possible to maintain a physical distance of 6 feet.”
Undersheriff Ron Cameron said Wednesday the requirement is difficult to enforce because there are exceptions, such as for persons with difficulty breathing or post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Do you investigate every single person not wearing a mask?” Cameron said.
Unthank reiterated that the resolution does not mandate wearing masks in public, conforming with the CDC.
Officials have said a mandate would be difficult to enforce.
“You can’t always look at someone and know why they are not wearing a mask,” Unthank added, urging compassion.
Officials have said people have criticized strangers for not wearing masks.
“Unfortunately, I’ve heard of people getting yelled at for wearing masks as well,” Unthank said.
In contrast with Clallam County, Jefferson County requires, under Locke’s May 28 order, with some exceptions, cloth face coverings for individuals who are in indoor public settings or outdoor public locations where they cannot maintain 6 feet of social distance.
Jefferson County business owners and operators also cannot allow non-employees to enter or remain in their building unless the non-employee is wearing a cloth face covering, according to the order.
Senior Staff Writer Paul Gottlieb can be reached at 360-452-2345, ext. 55650, or at email@example.com.