POINT OF VIEW: Change rules for reopening

Safe reopening could be done more quickly

Jim McEntire

Jim McEntire

OUR GOVERNOR OUTLINED his approach, with a schedule, to fighting the coronavirus and reopening our state’s economy May 8 — and it’s an improvement, while not containing nearly enough of a firm timeline for businesses to plan.

Through late March, it was appropriate to be fearful of the virus’s effects. Much was unknown about its lethality, or how extensively it had spread.

The public was comfortable with having public health officials “batten down the hatches” as an appropriate posture.

Principally, we all agreed to stay home and shut down our economy to protect the medically vulnerable and to keep our health care facilities from being overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients.

Many of us have lost our jobs and unexpectedly find ourselves in long queues in search of state and federal unemployment benefits.

Almost everyone has worn masks and most of us have stayed home.

While terrible, the sacrifice has worked. Here in Clallam County, we’ve never had more than a few COVID-19 cases at any one time.

No one has died of COVID-19 on the North Olympic Peninsula.

Having held public office, I understand decision-making in uncertain conditions, and I won’t quibble with that.

A comprehensive economic shutdown had never been attempted and those risks loomed smaller.

But that was then, and this is now.

Currently, it seems we are moving away from severe virus risk and the number of new cases is slowly petering out.

The virus is less lethal overall than first feared, and it hits certain vulnerable groups hard.

We know how to hedge risks to vulnerable groups. It’s indisputable that rural counties are lightly affected. The time is past for a crude, uniform approach to handling the virus.

Why is Jefferson County, with more per-capita COVID-19 cases than Clallam, eligible to petition the state for an accelerated economic re-start, while Clallam County is still tied to the governor’s schedule, even though it has been more lightly affected.

Indeed, why are many rural counties tied to the same schedule as King and other counties that have been hit hard?

With so many Washingtonians out of work — during the week of April 19-25, the Employment Security Department counted 1,455,908 total claims for unemployment benefits — we should switch immediately to an aggressive posture of protecting our economy, in tandem with protecting those most vulnerable to the virus.

These are not mutually exclusive policy goals. It’s all about risk tolerance and risk management — putting urgent priority on minimizing both health risks and economic risks. We can certainly achieve both.

Having done a credible job of protecting the vulnerable, the governor now needs the same urgent concern for those who are in dire economic peril.

His four-phase plan is a far too leisurely approach to reversing the economic damage that has been done, particularly in rural counties.

To illustrate: In 2019, Clallam County citizens’ median household income was only 65 percent of the statewide average; and for all Clallam school districts, 50 percent of children came from families whose poverty-level income qualified these children for free or reduced school meals.

Those conditions have likely worsened significantly.

The Legislature needs to answer this question: When does the emergency condition proclaimed by the governor end?

Business and government need to resume regular operations, and things will need to be done differently.

Alterations in rules should be debated and resolved quickly.

Businesses need authoritative guidance from government, rules need to be newly authorized or changed within existing law, but above all else we need to transition away from a blanket statewide emergency regulatory stance where businesses need to ask permission to resume while bearing the burden of proof for safely doing so to where the executive branch bears the burden of proof to show why any given business cannot safely resume operations.

While the rest of us are allowed to get back to work, the state could expand protections and support for the medically vulnerable.

Concepts like support for contact-free shopping and other assistance might fall into this category.

Our state constitution provides two mechanisms for the Legislature to return to a special session: The governor can call one, or the Legislature can call itself back into session if the governor declines or demurs.

The people need to speak through their elected legislators — and the time is now.

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Jim McEntire is a retired U.S. Coast Guard officer and a former elected official in Clallam County who describes himself as a concerned citizen long interested in the economic improvement of Clallam County families.