COVID-19 protocols are inconsistent
Winthrop Town Council members said last week they were concerned that, with the state’s Phase I coronavirus lockdown rules still in place, the town would nonetheless be overwhelmed by Memorial Day weekend visitors — some disdaining the face mask-gloves-distancing guidelines.
They were prophetic.
Providentially for some local businesses, a combination of decent weather, opening of the North Cascades Highway, and pent-up demand for the Methow experience did indeed bring a flood of visitors.
But some travelers seemed to treat the Methow Valley like it was a wide-open territory, despite Phase I limits on camping, dining, lodging and shopping — and an essential-travel-only advisory in place for the North Cascades Highway. Many locals expressed shock and dismay at the seeming lack of respect for the community.
Town Council members expected a wave of visitors was coming, but felt powerless to do anything official to enforce the COVID-19 directives.
Last week’s council meeting, conducted remotely on Zoom, included County Emergency Manager Maurice Goodall and Okanogan County Community Health Director Lauri Jones.
Jones noted that the Methow Valley had not had a reported COVID-19 case since April 13, and said the county continues to work toward a partial variance from the state to proceed to Phase II, which allows manufacturing, new construction, retailing with restrictions, in-door dining with restrictions, real estate offices, hair salons, house cleaning, and other professional services. Outdoor recreation will still be restricted as to group size.
Jones reiterated that masks are effective. “We are working tirelessly to stay safe,” she said. “We want to slow its [the coronavirus’s] spread. It’s going to be around for a while.”
Jones said that some compliance “problem areas” in the Methow had been reported, and “we are asking them to be more compliant.”
“With Highway 20 open, it will be difficult to manage,” she said.
Mayor Sally Ranzau suggested the town recommend that businesses require employees to wear masks to “set a good example, especially for guests.” Ranzau said the town also is looking into installing hand sanitizing stations around downtown.
Councilmember Kirsten Vanderhalf, who works at North Valley Lumber in Winthrop, said that employees and customers at the store are required to wear masks, and the store provides masks to customers who don’t have their own. “We think everyone should wear one,” she said.
As for the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, Vanderhalf said, “It’s going to be trouble … what is our plan?”
Ranzau said the town has few enforcement options short of threatening revocation of business licenses, and typically has only one law enforcement officer on duty at any time.
Councilmember William Kilby said he liked the idea of suggesting that business employees wear masks, and that Winthrop Chamber of Commerce could perhaps encourage that to its members.
“People are going to look for reasons to be defiant,” Kilby said. “It’s the atmosphere right now.”
Councilmember Bill McAdow, a contractor, said he requires customers to wear masks and meets with only one person at a time.
“Hopefully, people will use some common sense,” McAdow said.
Councilmember Joseph O’Driscoll said that despite the town’s limited enforcement capabilities, it would be a good idea to recommend that businesses adopt their own measures. “If you are expecting a lot of people, you should do it,” he said. “Everybody needs to do their part.”
Kilby and council member Ben Nelson supported the notion of posting signs around town, reminding people of coronavirus protocols.
As to businesses that don’t fully comply, Nelson said, “we can all vote with our wallets.”
Goodall said the county will continue to help businesses as it can, including providing protective masks.
Although council members have been circumspect about citing businesses that have drawn attention for their coronavirus protocols or lack thereof, some council members specifically referred to Sheri’s Sweet Shoppe at the four-way intersection.
Customers clustered around Sheri’s throughout last weekend (and the previous weekend). Most of them were not wearing masks or observing the 6-foot social distancing recommendation, according to several observers.
“It doesn’t look good when you have 20 or 30 people milling around,” McAdow said.
The scene was calmer at the Mazama Store, where several signs specify that masks are required in and around the store. Employees wear masks, and the store’s takeout business is conducted only from an open service counter on the courtyard. Entry and exit are by separate doors in the store’s retail space; decals on the floor mark 6-foot intervals.
Winthrop had recently retooled its radio and TV advertising for the Seattle and Spokane markets, looking to a time “when it’s safe to adventure again” to visit.
The town also sent out an email to travelers saying, “Winthrop really misses you but we are dependent on the smart residents of our state to adhere to the guidelines for the sake of our tiny town with many vulnerable residents.”
In other business:
• The council agreed to support a request by Steve Bondi, general manager of the Winthrop Rink, for a grant from the state Recreation and Conservation Office (RCO). If approved, the Youth Athletic Facilities grant would allow the rink to replace the dasher boards and safety glass surrounding the rink, Bondi said in a memo to the council.
In the grant application, Bondi said the dasher boards — which surround the rink surface — are more than 20 years old and should be replaced to ensure the rink can continue to operate safely.
• Separately, the council endorsed the town’s application for RCO funds to support three projects: improved water access in Mack Lloyd Park; Riverwalk Phase II; and development of the Meadowlark Natural Area near the Sullivan Cemetery, including a trailhead, trail, and picnic spots.
Town Planner Rocklynn Culp said she expects there will fewer RCO funds available this year, and therefore greater competition for them. However, if the town is awarded grant funds, it will be required to provide only a 25% local match as opposed to 50% in the past.
• The council approved an amendment to its construction code to allow the waiver of some fees related to buildings on town property. The action grew out of a recent discussion between the town and Friends of the Winthrop Public Library (FOWL) about a FOWL request that the town waive some fees associated with the construction of the new public library. FOWL, a nonprofit, is building the library on town-owned property with the intent of turning the facility over to the town when it is completed.