Are you essential?
I am, according to the governor’s office. News media workers are exempt from Gov. Jay Inslee’s executive order last week directing most state residents to stay at home and away from work. In fact, dozens of job categories including health care, hazardous materials and chemicals, financial services, military support industries, emergency services, food and agriculture, energy, public utilities, transportation, communications and vital local government functions are deemed essential and not subject to the “stay at home” directive.
The list created some initial confusion, which the governor’s office is trying to sort out. However it’s defined, the state is taking the restrictions seriously. While some businesses that could stay open have chosen not to, others that should be closed are not complying. Earlier this week, Inslee said that “Unfortunately, we’ve had thousands of calls coming from many places in the state … with reports that some individuals and some businesses are not complying” with the stay-at-home order. The governor said the state will start by asking nicely, but could ultimately impose penalties or even revoke licenses.
Many of the people who are still on the job, and we pretty much know who they are in our community, are making it possible for the rest of the populace to stay home and have most of their everyday needs met. That may be small solace to the sequestered millions who are not bringing in any income for who-knows-how-long. If you are cooped up and verging on stir-crazy, take a moment to be grateful for the “essential” people who may not have the option of removing themselves from COVID-19’s relentless advance.
Buried deep in the long list of exemptions is the news media’s “get out of the house free” card. Specifically: “Workers who support radio, television, newspapers and media service, including, but not limited to front line news reporters, studio, and technicians for newsgathering and reporting, and workers involved in the printing and distribution of newspapers.” Meaning, we “get” to keep doing our jobs, which we have always done anyway, whenever our communities face crises.
Somehow, it doesn’t feel special. Maybe because it doesn’t cite “editors,” although those of us who make assignments and edit stories may be presumed to “support” the news staff, a characterization that many veteran journalists would snort at. Mostly it’s that we always expect to keep doing our work, as long as we can, with whatever it takes to continue delivering important information to our communities.
That has become more challenging in just the past few weeks. Across the United States, as ad revenues plummet thanks to the COVID-19 general lockdown of the economy, hundreds of journalists are being laid off just when their work is needed most. Some newspapers have ceased publishing temporarily, but perhaps forever. There are huge swaths of the country that have no local newspaper coverage, daily or weekly. We’ve made some operational and production adjustments at the Methow Valley News, and are glad we’re able to keep putting out a weekly paper. I can look down the road and see how that may become increasingly difficult. But that’s a column for another day.
The governor’s stay-at-home order will likely be extended in some form past the original two-week period that Inslee imposed. That will put more pressure on the “essentials” to keep doing their jobs, and will result in more built-up tension among the stay-at-homers. We don’t have any experience with this kind of threat to society and are all playing it day-to-day. Which means that all of us, whether we’re on the job or staring out the living room window, are “essential” for the eventual repair and healing of our economy and communities. If you are feeling a bit left out right now, don’t worry — your time to make a difference will come.
You can do something in the meantime, though. A reader bought a tiny ad in this week’s paper with just two words of copy: “Be nice.” The more I hear about the siege mentality of a few valley residents, and a torches-and-pitchforks attitude toward people diagnosed with COVID-19, the more I think we should take that suggestion to heart. Informed awareness, concern for each other, conscientious actions and determined preparedness will get us through this. I feel essentially certain of that.