Jefferson County took its first step toward considering which business sectors it might allow to reopen as one of 10 rural counties to qualify under Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase plan to restart the state economy in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Jefferson and Grays Harbor counties both qualified under criteria Inslee announced on Friday to move into phase two, which could include “new construction, some manufacturing, restaurants under 50 percent capacity, hair and nail salons, barbers, real estate, professional services, housecleaning” and others, according to the state.
However, Clallam County did not qualify for the same waiver into the next phase because it hasn’t had a two-week period without a new confirmed case of the novel coronavirus. As such, the first phase of Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, in which most nonessential businesses are closed to the public, will remain in effect until May 31.
Dr. Allison Unthank, the Clallam County health officer, said she’s been asked why the county wasn’t included.
“In order to be one of those counties, you have to had no positive cases in the last two weeks prior to that order, and we don’t meet that criteria,” said Clallam County Health Officer Dr. Allison Unthank. “That’s the biggest reason why we weren’t in that group.
“A lot of folks wondered if we had just advocated harder, whether or not would we have been in that group — no, because we had cases in the last couple of weeks,” Unthank said.
Dr. Tom Locke, the Jefferson County health officer, said Monday the county has the power to choose which restrictions could be lifted — if any — and the state Board of Health would approve the final plan.
“This is not a simple process, but it is a thorough one, and it’s very much evidence-based,” Locke said. “The reason for all of this — and I completely support this concept — is that we paid a huge price to get as far as we are, and we don’t want to lose ground.
“We want to build on the success, we want to move forward and learn what we need to learn to control the transmission of this infection until we get a vaccine.”
Unthank said there’s other factors to look at in loosening restrictions — the degree of disease activity, how many cases are being transmitted within the community, the readiness of the local health care system to handle a possible large surge in new cases, and whether there is adequate testing and contact tracing in place among them.
“As far as where we are as a county, I think we’re actually doing quite well, but I would say we have a significant vulnerabilities if we had a large outbreak,” she said. “We have a very elderly population, we have a fragile health care system. Even though we have relatively few cases, a large outbreak would be very hard to manage. So we have to be particularly cautious as we move forward.”
“Long story short — we just don’t qualify to be one of those counties,” she said.
Jefferson County has 28 confirmed cases, and the most recent was diagnosed April 9, Locke said.
Clallam County has 18 confirmed cases, and Unthank said Monday all but one is now considered recovered.
As restrictions on many parks and recreation activities are scheduled to be lifted as early as today, Unthank said during a daily briefing Monday that she’s had many conversations with the public and with state and federal parks officials about the potential for tourists coming from areas where the virus has been more prevalent.
“In truth I’ve heard pressure from both directions,” she said. “I’ve heard from folks who want to blow up the bridge and keep people out, [and] I’ve heard from other folks who say, ‘I run a family-run fishing company, and we’re going to go out of business.’ ”
Unthank said people are already at a lower risk of contracting COVID-19 if they are outdoors, and if people maintain a 6-foot distance and wash their hands, their risk would be even lower.
“There are parts of our county that rely on tourists for their income, and we need to acknowledge that,” she said.
Jefferson County officials began what’s expected to be a long discussion Monday on whether to apply for the phase-two variance.
The process would start with Locke, the county health officer, who would recommend one of three paths to the county’s Board of Health. Locke said he could request zero variance, that all phase-two activities be implemented or that only some of the phase-two activities be implemented.
Jefferson County would not be able to implement any phase-three activities.
The Board of Health — comprised of the three county commissioners, a city council member, a hospital commission member and two at-large members — would have to approve the health officer’s plan by majority vote, and the hospital would need to certify it has enough bed capacity to treat possible new cases of COVID-19 and if it has at least a seven-day supply of personal protective equipment, Locke said.
The plan would then go before the county commissioners, who could approve or reject the plan, and if it passes, it would go to the state Board of Health for final approval, Locke said.
“We want to build on the success,” he said. “We want to move forward and learn what we need to learn to control the transmission of this infection until we get a vaccine.”
Before Locke makes any recommendations, county officials want to hear from community members on which phase-two recommendations could be implemented.
Part of the concern is that, by opening some businesses before other parts of the state — such as salons and barbershops — it could encourage people to travel to use those services and increase the risk of infection, and officials want to mitigate that impact while also listening to community needs.
The county commissioners and the Port Townsend City Council will have a joint meeting at 5 p.m. Thursday to discuss the response, and the commissioners asked to also include leaders from the economic council, the Chamber of Jefferson County and the Port Townsend Main Street program.
“Really all of [the officials] want to hear form the stakeholders, and that’s really everyone,” Locke said.