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Counties plead with Washington state to rethink reopening plan

City mayors and executives from at least six Washington counties say the governor's plan isn't working.

BELLINGHAM, Wash. — Businesses in Bellingham and across Whatcom County are still in Phase 1 of Gov. Jay Inslee's regional approach to reopening. But nearly a year into the pandemic, many in this region believe the plan simply isn't working.

"We've had a lot of patience. I think people are running out of patience. They're frustrated," Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu said.

They want to know why seven counties, including King, Pierce and Snohomish counties, have been allowed to move into Phase 2 despite having higher COVID-19 case rates.

Officials in Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island, which are counties grouped in the North Region, and Clallam and Kitsap, which are counties in the Northwest Region, are all sending letters to the governor asking him to find a better way.

The civic leaders say that local businesses have been shouldering the burden of the closures.

For example, Vince Lalonde, owner of Bellingham's Mount Bakery Cafe, has spent more than $10,000 on covered seating and heaters to survive, as sales dropped off by 60%.

He had to make the move to stay in business. The gooey goodness of the venerable Eggs Benedict at Bellingham's Mount Bakery Cafe was not meant for takeout. 

"We've taken a massive hit, that's for sure," he said. "We've spent tons of money and we're way more in debt."

Last month, the state changed the standards for regions to advance to Phase 2, saying that three out of the four following targets must be met:

  • 10% decreasing trend in case rates
  • 10% decrease in coronavirus hospital admission rates
  • ICU occupancy that’s less than 90%
  • Test positivity rate that’s less than 10%

Only two regions so far have hit the standard — the Puget Sound region, which includes King, Snohomish and Pierce counties, and the West region, which includes Grays Harbor, Pacific, Thurston and Lewis counties.

Phase 2 still has plenty of restrictions. For instance, indoor dining at restaurants and indoor fitness centers are limited to 25% capacity in Phase 2.

Sidhu is a supporter of Inslee, but feels Whatcom County and other small counties are being held to a faulty standard. 

In a letter, Whatcom County, which is in the same region as San Juan County, questioned how the standards are equitable across the state.

"How is it fair or equitable than San Juan County, with a two-week case rate of 64/100,000 has businesses shuttered, but King County, with a case rate of 300/100,000 is reopening?" county leaders asked the governor.

The letter continues:

"There is no margin of error for our smaller counties. A single case could sink an entire region." 

Sidhu believes the state shouldn't be the only entity deciding a county's fate.

"We have our doctors, we have our health care professionals that can talk to state health department people and make a case. That opportunity would be helpful."

In an email to KING 5 News, a spokesman for Inslee said the governor stood by the standards.

"While we have left a number of important decisions up to local governments,  we feel very strongly that the state reopening needs to be run at the state level. Lifting many of the current restrictions would result in exponential growth of the virus and overwhelm our health system, which is a disaster that would hurt even more people than the current level of suffering we’ve seen among people and businesses affected by COVID. These restrictions are necessary and are backed by a robust body of scientific evidence."

In the meantime, Lalonde said he and Mount Bakery are in this for the long haul. His primary focus is keeping workers and customers safe, and he has faith his local leaders are doing the right thing.

"I trust them to make a smart decision based on science regardless of what other people do."