Washougal leaders push for early Phase 3 reopening

Councilwoman Alex Yost disagrees, says she worries 'it's too much, too quickly'

The Washougal City Council will ask Washington Governor Jay Inslee to consider expediting Clark County’s eligibility for Phase 3 of the “Safe Start Washington” plan.

During their virtual meeting on Monday, June 8, council members approved a resolution, drafted by councilors Brent Boger, Ray Kutch, Julie Russell and Mayor Molly Coston, that asks Inslee to “consider the time Clark County’s application was held in abeyance because of (an) isolated outbreak in Vancouver as time in Phase 2.”

The county first applied for Phase 2 status on Friday, May 22, but the application was put on pause a day later after a coronavirus outbreak at Firestone Pacific Foods in Vancouver caused a spike in the county’s reported COVID-19 cases.

“The Clark County Department of Health’s response to that outbreak was excellent with thorough contract tracing, demonstrating its capacity to handle outbreaks, while other counties currently in Phase 2 or Phase 3 have not yet been similarly tested by an outbreak to similarly demonstrate contract tracing success,” the resolution states. “Clark County should not be penalized for this outbreak considering its proven ability to respond.”

The state approved the county’s second Phase 2 application on Friday, June 5. At least three weeks must pass before counties can become eligible to advance to the next phase.

“There was a loss of about a week-and-a-half or so of time, you could say,” Washougal city Manager David Scott said during a June 8 council workshop session. “If not for that outbreak, we already would’ve been counting down the three weeks to when we’d be eligible for Phase 3. Because of the good response of Public Health to the outbreak, we were able to move into Phase 2 in spite of the outbreak. This resolution asks the governor to count that week-and-a-half toward the three weeks, as if we had not been put on hold. It simply asks for the dispensation that we already consider ourselves about a week-and-a-half or so into Phase 2 for the purposes of when we could go to Phase 3.”

The resolution passed by a 7-1 margin, with councilwoman Alex Yost casting the lone ‘nay’ vote.

“We don’t know for certain that nobody who was exposed in either of those breakouts had any sort of interaction with people in the community, and there’s a two-week quarantine period once you believe you’ve had a risk of exposure,” said Yost, referring to the Firestone Pacific Foods outbreak and a report of five employees at Pacific Crest Building Supply in Ridgefield testing positive for COVID-19 last week.

“I’m concerned if we’re just trying to jump ahead like nothing happened, we’re making some pretty big assumptions. I would hate to see us have to roll back if something did happen in Washougal. I know it sounds, some may say, paranoid, or reactionary, but I just think there’s not enough information out there, not enough hard data out there, not enough time has gone by for scientists to accurately track this and figure out how it moves through society. There’s so much debate about the cloth mask coverings. I just don’t know what a week-and-a-half will do. To me, it feels like a political move, and I don’t mean that as an insult to (the people who drafted the resolution). But as a business owner, and somebody who’s in downtown all the time, I don’t see how us trying to push ourselves ahead benefits the community.”

Later in the session, Yost said that while she appreciates the work that went into the resolution, “she can’t, on principal, support (it).”

“I fully understand businesses wanting to get back to normal again, but I think we have to be realistic about (the fact that) if there are people still left standing, business-wise, they are made of some tough stuff, and they’re going to last another couple weeks, and it’s going to be OK because they’ve figured out systems to make it work for them,” she said. “I understand the frustration, but I do believe that if you’ve made it this far, then you’re going to make it a couple weeks longer.”

“My concern specifically with any sort of customer-facing industry, whether it’s a gym or restaurant or retail, is that you have individuals and other businesses that aren’t enforcing social distancing, which we know is really helpful, and (those individuals) come into your establishment and they’re either not wearing a mask or they can’t wear a mask because they’re eating food or something,” Yost added. “I worry that it’s too much, too quickly.”

As of Tuesday, June 9, Clark County had reported 603 COVID-19 cases and 28 deaths.

During the workshop session, Washougal resident Jim Cooper, a retired college professor with a doctor of philosophy degree (PhD) in biology and Washougal School District board member, commended city leaders for “taking the COVID-19 threat seriously.”

“I followed the data daily, and there is no doubt that by trusting biomedical science and taking timely mitigation actions, the Washougal School District and the city helped prevent the exponential escalation of COVID-19 cases in our community, allowing us help flatten the curve — there’s no doubt about that in the data — and move safely through the phased reopening of our economy,” Cooper said. “Sadly for me, most of my family resides in states like Texas and Arizona and Florida and North Carolina that failed to heed that biomedical expertise, opened prematurely and are now experiencing frightening spikes in COVID-19 cases. Thank you for following the advice of biomedical experts.”

The resolution states that Inslee’s “mitigation measures are causing a great deal of physical, psychological and economic pain to residents of Washougal.”

“The point of all of this was to flatten the curve; at least that’s what we were told in the beginning,” Russell said. “(We didn’t) want to overwhelm our healthcare system. Never once has Clark County’s health system been overwhelmed. We have four people, according to the statistics, today from Clark County in the hospital with COVID-19. We’ve had three months of data and been shut down. I don’t think opening up and moving into Phase 3 is going to impact anyone negatively. (Some people) put their heart and soul into their business, and to lose it because of a government shutdown is not fair.”

“We have been given a slice of the power to protect the public’s health and safety. The experts have changed their views on this quite a bit,” Boger added. “The World Health Organization came out with a finding that asymptomatic transition is very rare, which takes away a lot of the motivation to socially distance people who don’t have symptoms. I think we need to balance the evidence that’s out there.”

Coston said she supports the resolution, knowing that “it probably will not make a difference, may not make a difference.”

“There are people hurting really badly,” councilwoman Michellle Wagner said. “(I) want to support those people and do things as carefully as possible, but we want to get back to business. That’s why I’m supportive of (the resolution). I don’t know how much it’s going to do. It’s a week-and-a-half, right? We’re really talking about very small potatoes here.”

Mayor says city ‘ready for Phase 3’

Phase 3 of Inslee’s plan allows gatherings of 50 or fewer people; restaurants to open at 75-percent capacity; gymnasiums and movie theaters to open at 50-percent capacity; pools and recreation centers to open at 50-percent capacity; and retail, libraries, museums and government buildings to open.

Coston told the Post-Record she believes Clark County is adequately prepared to enter Phase 3 as soon as possible.

“(Phase 3) will bring some significant and positive changes,” she said, “and I think we are ready.”

But for now, Coston and other Washougal city leaders are pleased that the county has advanced to Phase 2. Restaurants, hair salons, barber shops and some retail stores can operate with certain capacity restrictions and safety precautions in place, and gatherings with up to five people from outside a household are allowed, as is camping.

“We’ve been closed up for three months, and that’s been difficult, not only for businesses but citizens and well,” Coston said. “People are so tired of being confined; I’m tired of it as well. The pandemic is certainly not over yet, but we’re making great headway. The allowed flexibility in Phase 2 for local jurisdictions will help us enormously. There are certain boundaries we can’t go beyond, but restaurants and other retail stores have a chance to open and gauge response from the community to prepare for Phase 3. It’s time to do that.”

In a letter to local residents, Scott called Phase 2 status “great news for our community.”

“We encourage you to support our local businesses by accessing professional and other services as they are available, patronizing restaurants that are open and making retail purchases from our stores that have been previously closed. The Washougal business community needs your help now more than ever,” Scott wrote.”The situation will continue to evolve, and our response will continue to change accordingly. On behalf of the mayor, council and staff at the city, we extend our thanks to the Washougal community for rising to the occasion. We can all do our part to safely reopen and get through and past this situation together.”

Earlier this month, the city opened most of its park restrooms, with the exception of facilities at Hamllik Park and the men’s restroom at Upper Hathaway Park, which remain closed for repairs; and the Steamboat Landing fishing dock.

“We do take guidance from the Clark County Health Department and the Center for Disease Control, and we’re starting to open restrooms and parks which were previously closed,” Coston said. “We’ve opened the Steamboat Landing fishing dock, which people have been championing for. I think we’ll be able in the next week to open some of the playgrounds and more things like that, but we want to make sure that we follow guidelines in terms of the daily sanitization and some of that stuff. We want to be able to safely open back up as quickly as we possibly can.

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