Face-to-face interactions reduced, processes altered
Members are advised not to attend the annual membership meeting of the Okanogan County Electric Cooperative (OCEC) — an illustration of the strange times that have arrived in the Methow Valley with the threat of COVID-19.
The message from local government and public agencies like OCEC is “we care about you and our employees, so stay away.” Several public entities are taking measures to reduce face-to-face interactions with their constituents in the interest of preventing spread of the virus and protecting employees and the public.
The towns of Twisp and Winthrop announced changes this week in the way they are doing business. Both towns plan to maintain regular business hours, but mayors urge citizens to conduct business by phone or email and not come to town hall.
“These are extraordinarily challenging times,” said Winthrop Mayor Sally Ranzau in announcing how the town will conduct business. “Gov. Inslee has issued a statewide order closing schools, cancelling public gatherings and enforcing social distancing for COVID-19 virus containment. The Town of Winthrop will adhere to these recommendations. Unfortunately, the employees who run your town government and services cannot work from home.”
Both town councils will continue meeting as normally scheduled, but public attendance is discouraged. Public comments can be submitted in writing or by email, and will be read aloud during the meetings. Water and sewer bills can be paid by mail, online or by depositing payments into drop boxes at each town hall. Questions for town employees should be submitted by email or phone.
“Working together will help us to more quickly and successfully get through this unprecedented situation,” said Twisp Mayor Soo Ing-Moody. “In the meantime, stay healthy, support our local businesses, and ask for, or offer assistance where needed.”
Like the towns, OCEC and the Okanogan County Public Utility District are urging customers to conduct business by phone or email. OCEC has moved its hours to its summer Monday-Thursday schedule, but has closed its front desk to walk-ins.
OCEC will hold an abbreviated, 10-minute annual meeting on April 20 at its offices, as required under its by-laws, but urges the public not to attend. An informational meeting for members will be scheduled for later this year.
Okanogan County commissioners met with department heads on Monday to discuss the county’s response to the public health emergency, and left decisions on procedural changes up to each department.
Presiding judges in Okanogan County District Court and Superior Court issued administrative orders this week modifying operations, including delaying scheduled jury trials to later dates and adhering to social distancing recommendations.
“Superior Court criminal jury trials are suspended until June 2, 2020, or they will be heard as a bench trial by waiver of a jury trial,” according to Judge Henry Rawson’s order. Jurors summoned for Superior Court jury service should contact the court for further instructions, according to the announcement. People scheduled to appear for a criminal proceeding must still show up to court.
Civil jury trials in Superior Court will continue as currently set on the calendar, and non-jury trials are not affected. The court’s civil law and motion calendars will also continue as scheduled, with dockets limited to 15 cases, and arguments limited to 10 minutes per party.
Domestic violence and adult felony drug matters will continue as scheduled. All juvenile truancy matters are suspended until Sept. 9.
In District Court, Judge Robert Grim ordered several changes in court procedures, including continuing all jury trials that are set for March and April to May trial settings, at the earliest. Jurors called to serve during the service periods affected by the order will be rescheduled to a later service period.
Criminal hearings other than jury trials will be heard as previously scheduled, and the court will accept motions to continue without defendants having to appear personally in court. Defendants older than 60 or who have at-risk health conditions “may request to appear telephonically for any criminal hearing,” according to the judge’s order.
The court will also take steps to reduce the number of people appearing at the same time, with defendants assigned to times for status conferences based on their last names. Small claims hearings scheduled for April are rescheduled to May or June.
In addition, Grim’s order calls for anyone with flu-like symptoms, as well as people who are 60 or older, or those with at-risk health conditions or weakened immune systems, to contact their attorney or the court before entering the courthouse “to arrange for alternate accommodations.”
People on District Court premises are expected to adhere to a 6-foot social distancing restriction from court staff and other persons, and anyone exhibiting symptoms that cause concern to court staff or security will be prohibited from entering the courtroom and will be given a new court date, the order states.
Precautions for jail
Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said his department will adopt policies to minimize exposure to the virus, including restricting fingerprinting to “criminal needs only.” That means the department will not provide fingerprinting for things like concealed weapons permits or employment.
People brought to the county jail for booking will have a medical screening before entering the facility, which holds about 155 inmates, Hawley said. Outside people or groups may be temporarily prohibited from coming into the jail, unless their visit is constitutionally mandated, such as attorneys visiting clients. In those cases, a booth that provides a physical barrier between the inmate and visitor will be used, Hawley said.
Deputies always have the discretion to cite and release violators, rather than booking them into jail, and that option may be used to greater extent during the health emergency “if it’s a minor charge and not a threat to public safety,” Hawley said. “In charges of a public safety nature, we would book,” he said. “The jail is only going to accept people that really need to be in jail.”
Organizations that provide a variety of services to the community are also taking steps to minimize potential exposure to the virus. TranGO, which operates buses throughout the county, will conduct thorough cleanings of the buses after each run, rather than at the beginning and end of each day, said Kelly Scalf, general manager.
While it may be difficult to maintain a 6-foot distance between passengers on busy routes, the bus service is needed by some people for transportation to “life-sustaining health care,” such as dialysis appointments, Scalf said.
With many businesses closing or cutting hours, ridership may decline, she said, and TranGO will be evaluating future steps. TranGO has canceled Saturday bus service and has a slightly shorter schedule for the Omak/Okanogan shuttle service that takes passengers to Confluence Health in Omak and Wal-Mart.
Okanogan County Transportation and Nutrition (OCTN), often called the “senior bus,” has also instituted thorough sanitizing of the bus between trips, said Deanne Konsack, director of operations. The Senior Center in Twisp is closed for lunch on site, but OCTN is taking people to the Senior Center to pick up take-out meals. Both OCTN and TranGO advise anyone who feels ill to call their doctor and not get on the buses.
The Okanogan County Assessor, Auditor and Treasurer offices will be closed to the public effective Wednesday (March 18) until further notice. Customers can utilize the online and pay-by-mail options for services such as vehicle licensing, tab renewal and tax payments. Temporary drop boxes will be provided near the Auditor and Treasurer office doors. Appointments for business that must be conducted in person will be offered on a limited basis. Employees will be available by phone.
Jim Grennell, owner of Methow Valley Licensing & Services in Twisp, said his business is open from 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Monday through Friday. Customers will not be able to go inside the business, but Grennell said he has a walk-up window for transactions. He prefers cash or checks to credit cards. On Tuesday morning (March 17), Grennell said he had help seven or eight customers so far that day.
Grennell handles license renewals for all types of vehicles and vessels, including cars, off-road vehicles and wheeled all-terrain vehicles, overweight vehicles and boats. He can provide renewal tabs, title transfers and disabled-parking permits. He doesn’t provide driver’s licenses, which are processed through a separate system.