Officials decry COVID-19 reopening inequity

People are frustrated that Island County is still in Phase 1 while other counties moved to Phase 2.

Disgruntled Island County officials, city leaders and business owners are crying foul over the state’s latest reopening plan that has allowed Seattle and Everett to move to Phase 2, but Whidbey Island and the rest of the “North Region” are stuck behind.

In response, the Council of Governments is holding a special session at 9 a.m. Thursday to consider sending a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee 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.

Langley Mayor Tim Callison has already sent a letter to the governor’s office detailing the inequities of not allowing Island County to move into Phase 2.

Island County, along with Whatcom, Skagit and San Juan counties, is in Phase 1, which doesn’t allow any indoor dining, among other restrictions.

Callison pointed out that Island County was one of the first to reach Phase 3 in the state’s previous reopening plan, and Langley was one of the first cities to require face masks to be worn.

Island County has had 22 deaths related to COVID-19, 20 of which were in long-term care facilities.

“Then you combined us with three other countries in the new regional approach. Two of the counties had not obviously been as cautious or as strict as we have been and sent us back to Phase 1,” Callison wrote.

“I know that the governor has said we are all in this together and he will decide the how, when and where resources will be applied to do the greatest good, but it seems very unfair that a county that rigorously followed the rules, and in fact had stricter limitations in some cases, continues to be treated this way.”

Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson, who represents the district covering most of Oak Harbor, said she has never been a fan of the regionalized approach to reopening. She observed that the state seems to be prioritizing an urban model in regards to how it deals with both vaccinations and the reopening plan.

“That’s leaving behind more rural areas of the state, and those rural areas are more economically vulnerable and are doing a better job at controlling the spread of the pandemic,” Johnson said.

Restaurants especially have been hit hard. Indoor dining at 25 percent capacity is only allowed once a region moves into Phase 2.

Johnson said she has not been aware of any COVID-19 outbreaks linked to restaurants in Island County.

“Those restaurants are motivated to make sure people don’t get sick in their restaurants,” she said.

Jenn Jurriaans, owner of Prima Bistro and Saltwater Fish House & Oyster Bar in Langley, said the decision to make everything based on regions is baffling to her.

“Just to me, it’s so completely arbitrary,” she said. “I cannot believe Seattle has been allowed to move forward and we have not.”

Both of her restaurants were down over 50 percent in revenues in 2020. Operations at Prima Bistro have been on a pause since December. Saltwater does have a tent for outdoor dining, but it is an expense the restaurant now has to foot itself.

“I don’t know how I feel about opening up indoors,” Jurriaans said. “I really want restaurant workers to get moved up on the vaccination schedule.”

“It’s so important to the community to have their restaurants standing at the other side of this,” she added.