Seek cooperation as reopening rolls out
The Okanogan County commissioners are appealing directly to county residents for their cooperation in moving toward more-normal life and commerce.
“We know that the residents of Okanogan County are resilient and can unite to show that we have what it takes to successfully get back on our feet,” the commissioners said in a letter to the citizens of Okanogan County on Monday (May 18).
The letter is an effort to rally county residents in a united goal in the face of a public health crisis that has contributed to polarization in the county and across the country.
The letter strives to defuse political differences to fight “a common enemy.” “What we know for sure is that we can mitigate the spread of the disease if we follow appropriate health guidelines,” the commissioners wrote.
The commissioners and county Public Health officials are recommending that businesses and the public “learn and practice all measures necessary to prevent the spread of the COVID virus,” they wrote. The letter doesn’t set out specific measures or provide details of what people may have to do “in a slightly different manner.”
County Commissioner Andy Hover put together a draft of the letter last week as a way of getting everyone to do their part to help the county move to Phase II, which will allow more businesses to open, he said on Monday (May 18). “We’re not opening the floodgates, but we want people to be able to safely patronize businesses so they can re-open,” he said.
“Our goal is to put partisanship aside and focus on our county. What do we want our citizens to know?” Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones said as the commissioners discussed the letter.
All three commissioners contributed to the final letter, which will be disseminated through the county’s alert system and local media.
The letter to the public is just one facet of the county’s multi-pronged approach. The commissioners and Okanogan County Public Health are lobbying the state for the go-ahead to take a half-step — literally — to re-opening by moving to what’s been dubbed “Phase I.5.”
Jones and Okanogan County Health Officer John McCarthy spoke with state health officials over the weekend to review — and, ideally, adjust — conditions for re-opening in the state’s four-phase plan, Jones told the commissioners.
Washington offered small counties the opportunity to apply for a variance to move ahead to the next phase if they meet certain requirements, including no new COVID cases for three weeks. While a few small, isolated counties qualified, zero cases is an impossibility for counties like Okanogan and Chelan, Jones said.
But Okanogan County has met or exceeded other state requirements. Public Health has contacted 100% of the people who’ve been infected with the virus, and has followed up with their close contacts. They have enough volunteers to continue this contact tracing if the caseload increases, Jones said.
The county has successfully protected its long-term care facilities.
The county has also received more than 1,000 new test kits, and has met the state’s criteria by testing 2% of the population, Jones said.
Jones and McCarthy were scheduled to talk with Washington’s secretary of health on May 18 about a new strategy that could allow the county to apply for a variance. The application would include letters documenting preparedness from hospitals, the county sheriff, and the Colville Tribal Business Council.
It would also include plans from local businesses about their proposed public health measures. “I’m getting letters from small businesses. I’m really impressed by the seriousness they’re taking this with,” Jones said.
“I truly feel comfortable that we’ll be able to move forward this week,” Jones said.
As part of the campaign, Hover mentioned asking businesses to post guidelines about cloth face coverings issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The county can also help businesses obtain a supply of face masks for people who want them. “Even a bandana works,” Hover said.
But any recommendations about face masks will be voluntary, the commissioners said.
“I’ll buy off on all of this stuff, except mandatory masking,” Commissioner Jim DeTro said. He was outraged that people attending an Okanogan County Board of Health meeting last week had been asked to wear a mask, likening it to Nazi Germany. If a business requires masks, that’s different, since people can choose whether to patronize it, DeTro said.
DeTro pointed to health reasons that make masks ill-advised for some people. “My doctor said that, because of my chronic asthma, a mask will compromise my health,” he said.
“I respect that,” County Commissioner Chris Branch said, noting that any policy can include leeway, just as there is for support dogs.
“With a united voice from the commissioners, I think that citizens will listen, regardless of their politics,” Jones said. “Masks protect other people from you. I would love to see more people being considerate of that.”
Still, Hover worries that when people wear masks they feel secure and no longer keep their distance from others.
“It’s not a sense of security,” Branch said. “It’s the opposite — it’s a sense of responsibility.”
Branch again suggested that businesses and other entities post information explaining how the virus is spread through droplets so that people understand what precautions they should take, and why.
The commissioners are discussing whether it will be safe to hold the Okanogan County Fair in September. They expect to make a decision in the next few weeks, particularly because youths start spending a lot of money on animal feed in June, DeTro said.
If the traditional fair needs to be canceled for public health reasons, the commissioners will explore ways to hold a market sale by video so that kids can still earn money from their animals.