A view of the Elwha River Valley can be seen from an overlook trail. (Laura Foster/Peninsula Daily News)

A view of the Elwha River Valley can be seen from an overlook trail. (Laura Foster/Peninsula Daily News)

Olympic National Park to begin phased-in reopening next week

Plans just starting; no details yet

PORT ANGELES — Olympic National Park officials are beginning to plan for a phased reopening of certain day-use facilities in May, park Superintendent Sarah Creachbaum said in a COVID-19 briefing Wednesday.

Meanwhile, public health officials were taking advantage of a “lull in the storm” to prepare for the next stage of the coronavirus response on the North Olympic Peninsula.

No new cases of COVID-19 were reported in Clallam or Jefferson counties Wednesday as the total number of confirmed cases in the region remained at 45.

The newly named Clallam County Social Distancing Center in west Port Angeles had one person sheltering Wednesday, said Dr. Allison Unthank, Clallam County health officer.

The county facility opened last week in the Port of Port Angeles-owned 1010 Building near William R. Fairchild International Airport. Clallam County is leasing the 25,000-square-foot building and adjacent yard for $16,000 per month for four months.

“This is a voluntary place that anyone could go who needs a place to shelter,” Unthank said during the first of two COVID-19 briefings she led at the county courthouse Wednesday.

“We’re going to be working with some leaders in our homeless community to make sure that they know that this is going on, and that it is a safe place to come.”

Jefferson County has 28 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of Wednesday. There have been no new coronavirus cases reported in the county since April 9.

Clallam County’s COVID-19 case total remained at 17.

“We really appreciate this lull in the storm because it’s allowed us to focus our energies on planning for the next stage,” said Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.

The next stage will involve a “new level” of partnership between public health and health care providers to identify COVID-19 cases, trace contacts and to assist those who are infected, isolated or quarantined, Locke said.

Testing supplies remained low in Jefferson County, but the turnaround time for lab results had improved, Locke said.

“We continue to be real busy, but we’re planning for the next stage,” Locke said Wednesday.

“It’s pretty clear that, week by week, more and more things are going to be opening up, and by mid-May, we’re probably going to have some major re-openings of business and other kind of activities.”

Gov. Jay Inslee announced earlier this week a partial reopening for outdoor activities beginning next Tuesday. His stay-home order through May 4 was extended Wednesday.

Some fishing, hunting, golfing and day-use of state lands will be permitted beginning Tuesday.

“I do recommend at the time that the state reopens their parks that we reopen our county parks as well, and it does sound like that is likely to happen,” Unthank said in an Emergency Management Center (EOC) briefing.

“I know any time we start to reopen things after we close them, it causes some anxiety. The thing to know is I think it is very possible to do outdoor recreation well.”

Unthank, who delivered a similar message to the Clallam County Board of Health on Wednesday, reminded the public to maintain 6 feet of physical distance to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

“It’s going to be important that we don’t decide to do big, giant picnics or things like that,” Unthank said.

“But as long as we go outside, keep our distance, wash our hands, I think we can do just fine.”

Park reopening

During a question-and-answer session, Creachbaum offered to work with public health officials on a plan for a phased reopening of Olympic National Park.

“We can start with facilities that we know may not attract a great number of people from King County or other environs all on their own, and service more of the local folks who want to do their daily exercise or go for a day hike,” Creachbaum said.

“I think we have a lot of opportunity to do this in a sane and reasonable way for us and for you.”

Unthank had previously said she would recommend the federal government reopen Olympic, Mount Rainier and North Cascades national parks at the same time to prevent an influx of tourists from the Seattle area converging on one park.

Creachbaum said each park was planning to begin a phased re-opening of some day-use facilities beginning on or around Tuesday.

She was not immediately available for further comment Wednesday.

“The opening of each of the parks is necessarily predicated on being able to outfit our employees with adequate PPE (personal protective equipment), with adequate cleaning supplies to keep the restrooms clean, and with adequate enforcement to keep people from crowding around restroom areas,” Creachbaum said at the EOC briefing.

Olympic National Park’s seasonal workforce will likely be reduced by about one-third this summer because of a federal requirement that one person reside in one room, Creachbaum said.

Visitor center employees, interpretive park rangers and others who work with crowds may not start working until May 24, Creachbaum said.

“With all of those constraints, and with each of our parks having those different constraints at different times, it’s pretty difficult for us to do an en masse, coordinated open,” Creachbaum said.

“I’m very understanding of the situation,” Creachbaum added, “and would like to work very closely with you, Dr. Unthank, and the other county public health officials so that we can have a reasonable opening that won’t put people who are already very vulnerable, communities that are very vulnerable, at risk.

“I think that, with the support of our local health officials, we’ll be able to implement that plan pretty effectively,” Creachbaum said.

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Reporter Rob Ollikainen can be reached at [email protected].

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