Washougal councilors push for looser COVID-19 restrictions

City has fourth-highest rate of coronavirus cases in Clark County

Even though Sandy Swimming Hole Park in Washougal has been closed since mid-April, several groups of people couldn’t resist going to the park to sit on the beach or wade out into the Washougal River on a sunny afternoon on Friday, May 15. (Doug Flanagan/Post-Record)

Several Washougal City Council members say they believe many of the statewide restrictions meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 are no longer necessary on a local level. 

“It seems like some of these restrictions are for the Seattle area and not Clark County and Washougal,” Councilwoman Julie Russell said during the council’s May 11 workshop.

Councilman Ray Kutch agreed. 

“(Inslee’s orders seem to say that) what is good for Seattle is good for the rest of the state as well, and that’s not true,” Kutch told the Post-Record. “We need to be aware of what’s going on in our own areas and make decisions we have to make. We shouldn’t just rubber-stamp what Olympia says. (Residents) didn’t elect us just to say, ‘OK, the governor says this, so it’s obviously gospel, and we have to do exactly what he says.’ It all starts right here at the local level. The governor should be looking at this through many lenses, not just one, and I don’t think that’s happening.”

The councilors in favor of allowing a local loosening of COVID-19 restrictions referenced a recent decision by Battle Ground City Council members to write to Inslee and request reconsideration of the stay-at-home orders that have been in place since March and will continue through at least May 31.

“We appreciate your efforts and leadership in dealing with the pandemic, but (we) fear that the efforts are not sufficient to deal with the fallout,” the letter reads. “Our local economy is suffering. Businesses are closing for good, and those that are attempting to remain open are faced with escalating debt and no clear idea when things will return to ‘normal.’”

The governor said last week that he hopes to move the state into “Phase 2” of his four-phase plan for reopening on June 1. Phase 2 will allow many businesses to reopen, including remaining manufacturing and new construction, as well as in-store retail with some restrictions, real estate, hair and nail salons and professional office-based businesses. Restaurants in Phase 2 will be allowed to operate at under 50 percent capacity with tables no larger than five people and spaced to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Phase 2 also will allow Washingtonians to gather with no more than five people from outside a household each week and will allow small-group outdoor recreating. 

Inslee has already allowed 10 Washington counties into Phase 2, including Washougal’s eastern neighbor, Skamania County. 

To qualify for an early move to the next phase of reopening, a county needed to have a population under 75,000 with no new COVID-19 cases in at least three weeks. 

Clark County had 406 positive cases and 25 coronavirus-related deaths as of Monday, May 18, according to Clark County Public Health. The county recorded five new COVID-19 cases over the past weekend.

According to the county’s public health records, Washougal had the fourth-highest rate of confirmed COVID-19 cases (100.7 per 100,000) in Clark County as of Friday, May 15. 

“The reality is that the number of COVID-19 cases in Clark County is about one-tenth of 1 percent (of the population),” Kutch told the Post-Record. “Not to minimize that, but that’s pretty small, and we need to be aware of that. Of the 25 deaths that we’ve had, 24 of them have been people older than 60 years old. Seventeen were older than 80. We need to be reasonable in what we do. 

“Part of our responsibility is to not be silent about it. We need to say something about it without creating a feeling of, ‘Oh my God, you don’t care about human life.’ I do care about human life. Are people going to die? Yes. But the reality is we still need to keep businesses going. If we don’t keep businesses going, more people will die. It’s unfortunate that we can’t let the private sector make decisions. We need small businesses in Washougal because they are all we have.”

Boger said during the May 11 workshop that he would support the idea of writing a letter to Inslee, and “perhaps even (passing) a resolution.” He said that while events like big block parties should not be allowed to happen, “a lot of this stuff doesn’t pertain to us… and I think we can be a little more relaxed, especially with our needs.”

“(I’m basing my opinion on) a lot of things,” Boger later told the Post-Record. “Numbers from Georgia, Florida and Sweden. The fact that Clark County has relatively few cases. It has not been demonstrated that the lockdown’s benefits — which are speculative — outweigh the damage done to other health needs and to the economy. Social distancing is appropriate. The lockdown is not.”

Georgia and Florida governors lifted many COVID-19 restrictions in early May in an effort to kickstart their economies. Swedish leaders did take several steps to contain the spread of COVID-19 in that country, banning gathering of more than 50 people and asking students older than 16 to switch over to remote learning, but declined to shutdown most businesses, including bars, gyms and restaurants — instead hoping for residents to generate “herd immunity.” The country has had more COVID-19 deaths than its neighbors in Denmark, Norway and Finland, which all imposed much stricter lockdowns, with 364 deaths per million people compared to 94 deaths per million in Denmark, 54 deaths per million in Finland and 42 deaths per million in Norway. 

Public health officials have said it is too early to know the impacts of Florida and Georgia’s early May reopenings, COVID-19 takes three to 14 days to show symptoms in most people, and health experts say there may be a month delay between infections and reported cases.

The Florida Department of Health on Tuesday, May 19, said the number of COVID-19 cases in that state has continued to climb since the state relaxed its “stay home” orders, with 502 new cases reported Monday, bringing that state’s total of known COVID-19 cases to 46,944 with more than 2,000 deaths. 

According to data from Johns Hopkins University, Washington has had 244 COVID-19 cases and just over 13 deaths per 100,000 residents. By comparison, Oregon, which has also been under strict lockdown orders since late March, has had 87 cases and three deaths per 100,000 residents; Georgia has had 360.6 cases and 15.5 deaths per 100,000 residents; and Florida has had 216.2 cases and nine deaths per 100,000 residents. 

COVID-19 testing rates vary by state. Washington has tested nearly 3.75 percent of its population compared to Oregon, Georgia and Florida, which have tested 2.3 percent, 3.4 percent and 3.1 percent of residents, respectively.

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