Leaders confront gov’s office over reopening plan

Island County officials are not happy Whidbey is stuck in Phase 1 of the state’s reopening plan.

Island County commissioners, city leaders and port commissioners will send the governor a letter criticizing a new pandemic-related reopening plan that places the county in a region that hasn’t moved forward to the second, less-restrictive phase.

Under Gov. Jay Inslee’s current Roadmap to Recovery plan, Island County is part of the North Region, which includes Skagit, Whatcom and San Juan counties. The region is in Phase 1, which means no indoor dining at restaurants and other restrictions.

To advance to Phase 2, regions must meet three of four metrics, which are updated every other Friday. The next update will occur Feb. 12.

Members of the Council of Governments held a special meeting this past week to discuss sending a letter to the governor’s office that outlines concerns regarding the state’s policy and impacts to Island County.

The council is made up of Island County commissioners, mayors of the three municipalities and representatives from the port districts. Also in attendance at the meeting was Joe Timmons, the Northwest regional representative for the governor’s office.

Leaders of the county were outspoken in their disagreement with the reopening plan. Many advocated for the return of Island County to Phase 3, where it was in a previous reopening plan.

“Our restaurants, they were ready and set up to safely serve customers and then it was taken away from them,” Coupeville Mayor Molly Hughes said.

Indoor dining in the county’s restaurants has not been permitted since before mid-November.

“It’s very disheartening for our citizens who have embraced the governor’s guidance and done the hard work in order to reduce our numbers of cases, to be treated this way,” Langley Mayor Tim Callison said. “It’s like we’re a footnote.”

Callison said he understood the regional approach, but that it doesn’t work because Island County is not like the other counties it has been associated with in the reopening plan.

Others pointed out what they deemed as inconsistencies in the new plan.

“It’s very difficult to explain to our citizens why having dinner in downtown Seattle is safer than having dinner in downtown Coupeville,” County Commissioner Jill Johnson said.

She added that citizens were more motivated to keep COVID-19 case numbers low when the county wasn’t lumped in with Whatcom County, where cases have been steadily rising.

“There’s local government for a reason,” she said. “But this sort of one-size-fits-all dictatorship isn’t working.”

Hughes said the Puget Sound Region, which houses Everett and Seattle, was able to move into Phase 2 last week because the more populous counties where virus cases were higher had a lot more room to improve.

“Their decreased numbers are still not getting any closer to what ours were,” she said, adding that Island County has been “rock steady.”

Don Mason, the county’s COVID response manager, told the commissioners this week that Island County would be in Phase 2 if it was on its own, based on current metrics.

Timmons, the governor’s representative, said the regional approach to reopening was based around the state’s emergency medical systems and was designed to prevent an overflow of medical needs in any particular region.

He added that the application process in the previous “Safe Start” plan was “cumbersome” for counties.

With the most recent adjustment to “Roadmap to Recovery,” only three of the four metrics need to be met for regions to move to the next phase, making it easier to do so.

Johnson said that Whidbey residents utilize hospital beds at Providence Regional Medical Center in Snohomish County — which is in Phase 2 — yet they cannot access PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center in Whatcom County.

She also argued that she prefers being held to a high standard of having to meet all four metrics, rather than the alternative.

County Commissioner Melanie Bacon agreed that the amount of paperwork that had to be done previously to advance to the next phase was “onerous” but necessary.

“We made filling out the paperwork a priority for our organization because we recognized how important it was that we stay open and safe,” she said.

The leaders also discussed a more equitable vaccine plan. County Commissioner Janet St. Clair pointed out that the average age of Island County residents is older compared to the state as a whole.

“Our county is disproportionately older than the state population,” she said.

Johnson shared concerns about adults with developmental disabilities not yet being able to receive their vaccines.

Last month, the commissioners sent the governor and state Department of Health a letter complaining about the placement of disabled people living in group homes in the vaccination distribution phases.

Callison said he has also heard concerns about the vaccination distribution phases.

He has been approached by constituents who are immunocompromised and part of the workforce but have not been able to receive their vaccines yet.

Timmons said no county is receiving all of the vaccines it has requested, but that a 16 percent increase in the state’s supply will be forthcoming in the next three weeks.

In the end, members of the Council of Governments agreed to write a letter, part of which asks for Island County to be released from the Roadmap to Recovery opening plan.

Oak Harbor Mayor Bob Severns also wrote a separate letter to the governor’s office, which also calls for a separation of Island County from its associated counties in the North Region.

“Island County feels as if we do not have as much influence on your decision-making because we are comprised of mostly rural communities,” Severns wrote.

“We are impacted differently and now being penalized for the hard work our communities have done by this regional judgment.”