Officials in Camas are trying to stay one step ahead of rapidly shifting efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by a novel coronavirus first identified in China in December 2019.
As of Saturday, March 21, there were 1,524 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Washington state. The disease has killed 83 Washingtonians, including three in Clark County since being discovered in the state in mid-February.
Schools across Washington are closed for the next six weeks, and Washington Governor Jay Inslee has banned all gatherings of more than 50 people, closed theaters and shut down in-person dining in restaurants and bars.
Camas Mayor Pro Tem Greg Anderson said city officials have been trying to stay one step ahead of the rapid-fire closures and announcements from the state and federal governments.
“We are thinking this through internally and externally to get ahead of the next ‘what if’ and trying to be as proactive as we can be,” Anderson said.
The city of Camas has already cancelled indoor events through its Parks and Recreation Department, as well as the planned Easter egg hunt on April 12, and planned to announce on Tuesday, March 17, the closure of the Camas Community Center and the fact that some walk-up windows related to city services such as building permits will be appointment-only during the COVID-19 prevention measures.
“We will still be responding to needs — broken water pipes, trail maintenance, police and fire responses,” Anderson said. “Police and fire still intend to respond in person, but they may be wearing more protective gear.”
Camas Mayor Barry McDonnell has been vacationing with family in Spain since March 6, and was expected to be back March 23, but has decided to cut his trip short, Anderson said.
“He is on a plane today and tomorrow and expects to be back tomorrow night,” Anderson said.
McDonnell has not yet indicated if he will need to self-quarantine after traveling from a European country that has seen its number of COVID-19 cases and related deaths rise drastically over the past few weeks.
The Camas-Washougal Fire Department has been in touch with area nursing and senior-living homes, Anderson said.
“Everyone is following the guidelines and not allowing visitors. They’re trying to learn from Kirkland,” Anderson said, referring to Kirkland, Washington, where COVID-19 has ravaged a local nursing home and killed at least 23 residents.
The state announcements related to the coronavirus prevention measures have been flowing in rapidly, Anderson said, with three changes over the past 10 days.
“We’re still just reacting,” he said. “Nothing compares to this. I’ve been talking to other 30-year city employees and this is all new territory. We’re just trying to get ahead of it.”
The Camas City Council discussed the pandemic’s impacts at a Council workshop held Monday, March 13, and said that, so far, residents haven’t voiced too many objections to the widespread closures and postponements.
“The feedback from the public is quiet for the most part,” Anderson, the acting mayor pro tem, told the Council on Monday. “(Canceling events) is not an easy thing to do, but is the right step to take.”
The city’s commissions and boards have temporarily canceled meetings and the city council agreed Monday to have virtual meetings — including the councilors’ upcoming ward meetings — and to explore the best ways for the public to still interact with the Council, ask questions and comment on city business.
Councilwoman Ellen Burton said she has 20 years’ worth of experience running webinars and virtual meetings, and knows the technology is available to help the Council continue to host public meetings even if they cannot gather the public in-person.
“The technology like GoToMeeting is very, very usable,” Burton said. “(The Council can) do this and make it work and have interactive conversations.”
She added that giving people the ability to call in to a council meeting, instead of attending in-person, could “get more people participating.”
Anderson added that having virtual meetings will be more of a burden than regular, in-person meetings, and suggested the Council try to consolidate non-essential business into one meeting instead of spreading it out over multiple meetings.
Several Camas department heads said they have many employees who are able to work from home, and are looking into helping more city workers be able to telecommute whenever possible.
The city’s fire and police chiefs spoke to Council on Monday about their efforts to protect police officers and firefighters from contracting — or inadvertently spreading — the coronavirus during emergency calls.
Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey said his department has requested more supplies like masks and gowns.
“We have a normal amount, but it would be nice to have a little bit of a cushion,” Lackey said, adding that the department is in line to receive available supplies.
“We have ordered … but are in a queue,” Lackey said. “We have a small supply but would probably want to double (that amount).”
Camas-Washougal Fire Department Fire Chief Nick Swinhart said his department’s protective supplies “are good right now,” with enough N95 respirator masks for first responders to wear a fresh one to each incident.
Lackey said the pandemic situation and related requirements for first responders are changing “every couple of hours.”
“You plan for ‘A’ and, two hours from now, it’s ‘B,’ but the protocol (is the same): handle what you can by telephone while maintaining public safety,” he said.
On the fire side, Swinhart said the fire marshal’s office would meet with the public on an appointment-only basis starting March 18.
City Councilman Steven Hogan asked Lackey if local law enforcement had the ability to enforce state orders related to the coronavirus, such as the ban on gatherings of 50 or more people and on in-person dining at restaurants.
Lackey said disobeying a public health order is considered a misdemeanor crime.
“Ultimately, all law enforcement have (the ability to charge people who don’t follow public health orders with a crime) in their toolbox, but it certainly wouldn’t be the first tool,” he said. “There may be a time when some of those tools are used. I don’t think we’re at that place yet, but the infrastructure is in place if we need to.”