Port of Port Townsend officials to talk over variance

Commissioners will meet virtually Tuesday

PORT TOWNSEND — Concerns about reopening too soon, especially to people from areas harder hit by COVID-19 than Jefferson County, were aired during a Port of Port Townsend discussion, during which one commissioner said that by the time the county makes a decision about applying for an early Phase 2 waiver, the question may be moot.

“I wish we lived in a county that could make a decision on the variance expeditiously like I’ve seen eight counties do, but we don’t,” said Pete Hanke, when commissioners met last Wednesday.

“So by the time we do get around to making a decision, I think it really is just a moot decision. We will be heading for May 31st,” when the rest of the state is scheduled to move into Gov. Jay Inslee’s Phase 2.

Port commissioners will virtually meet with officials from the City of Port Townsend, Jefferson County, Public Utility District and Board of Health on Tuesday.

There, each entity will make recommendations to the Board of Health as to whether or not to go forward with applying for the variance.

Variances allow counties in Washington with less than 75,000 people and no new cases of COVID-19 for three weeks to move into Phase 2 of the re-opening plan before the rest of the state.

Jefferson County has confirmed a case of COVID-19 within the past three weeks, but the state has said it still can apply for the variance.

The multi-step process requires sign-offs from all county government entities as well as hospitals before the Board of Health can request the variance.

Phase 2 still encourages precautions but allows for gatherings of five or fewer people as well as outdoor recreational activities.

People may return to their offices as long as 6 feet of social distance can be maintained along with other precautions, although telecommuting remains the recommendation.

Restaurants will be allowed open with 50 percent capacity to tables of no more than five people.

Port commissioners and businesses are anxious to bring commerce back to life, but they also have safety concerns.

Chris Brignoli of the Port Townsend Shipwrights Co-Op wrote in a letter to commissioners and said that, while he understands the economic hardship the shutdown has brought to the port, reopening too soon could create new dangers and place a large strain on the Jefferson County health care system should the virus re-emerge as it has in other countries.

“I feel it is too soon to open our port to haul-outs and recreational vehicles from outside the county to be worked on by their owners, as this may significantly impact our community’s exposure to the virus,” Brignoli said.

“I do support limited, controlled haul-outs for boats that are locally owned for owners to work on with the expectation that they will follow COVID-19 safety guidelines. However, I do not support vessel owners who keep their boats in Boat Haven but live in Seattle or other high-risk areas from hauling or working on their boats here. It feels to me that this risk is just too great.”

Port Commissioner Bill Putney said he doesn’t want to see Jefferson County become an escape for people who live in high-risk areas.

“I think we have been lucky and skilled at keeping the contagion confined, but if we start opening up very broadly to kind of anybody who wants to come, we’ll have a situation akin to wet county-dry county where we would become a very attractive place for people to visit from areas that aren’t contained at this point, and I don’t know how legitimately we can police that,” Putney said.

Hanke said that, no matter what happens, there will be some risk to the health or finances for the port.

“We’re all going to have our opinions on what this virus is and how much it’s going to spread and what we’re going to do,” he said.

“Either at some point, we’re going to wait until there’s a vaccine before we do anything, or we’re not going to wait for the vaccine before we do anything.

“It seems to me that looking at how much the hospitals have in the capacity of beds, how much PPE (personal protection equipment) the hospital has, really is the key to understanding what we can do and what level of risk we can take,” he added.

“It looks to me like we do have plenty of hospital beds and plenty of PPE to take the risk of opening ourselves up a little and seeing how it goes.”

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Reporter Ken Park can be reached at [email protected].

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