The Mercer Island City Council and the Mercer Island School District (MISD) joined together on March 12 for a COVID-19 (coronavirus) briefing.
The briefing was live streamed, recorded and can now be found on the city’s YouTube channel.
City manager Jessi Bon led the briefing.
Mayor Benson Wong took a thankful and cautious tone in his remarks.
“I want to thank our community for being understanding and supportive given the region’s current health crisis. On behalf of the city council we encourage all of you to read and follow the recent directives from the Governor’s office, King County and the different health departments,” Wong said. “Keeping our public safe and healthy as much as possible is a key function of government.”
An update on the MISD was given by school board President Deborah Lurie, Superintendent Donna Colosky and assistant superintendent Fred Rundle. Later that day, a school board meeting was held. It was also recorded and can be found on the district’s website (https://bit.ly/2wZL3IA).
Schools have been closed since March 13, and the district still will provide services including nutrition during the closure.
“On behalf of the Mercer Island School Board I would like to express our appreciation for the patience of the Mercer Island community as we work through the daily challenges we are currently facing,” Lurie said. “The district is taking (action) to maintain the health and safety of our students … This includes ongoing efforts to support our students, families and entire community now that our schools are temporarily closed.”
She said they welcome comments and suggestions during the extended closure.
Colosky said the district is committed to working with regional partners, and providing updated and accurate information to families.
“We will also continue to support our students’ learning through resources that will be shared to our families by our usual online communication tools in order to provide a continuity of services during this closure,” Colosky said.
Rundle explained how services will continue with some modifications.
“During the closure we encourage families to continue to abide by health guidelines,” he said. “Closing the schools for this lengthy period of time is in the best interest of the students, the staff and the entire Mercer Island community. While students may not be most at risk, they can be carriers who can affect those who are.”
He said that in addition to education the district will continue to provide other critical resources such as childcare, nutrition and learning exercises. He said the current means of communication will continue to be utilized.
“We are working with our child care providers to continue offering a place for our students during the day while parents may be working, especially those who are providing critical health care throughout the Puget Sound region. Additionally, through our nutrition services department, we will provide lunches to students,” he said.
Information about the services offered during the school closure, including free lunches, can be found on the school district website at www.mercerislandschools.org.
Bon went over the timeline of COVID-19 related events and actions that have so far taken place and discussed city goals and procedures. She said the city’s emergency management team has been working with Public Health – Seattle & King County (PHSKC) and regional partners.
Many events have canceled and city services have been halted or modified. They are working to keep up to date with all COVID-19 related information and procedures, which continue to change. Bon said the city is constantly communicating with residents via the city’s website and social media.
On Feb. 29, the first COVID-19 death in the state was reported and Gov. Jay Inslee declared a state of emergency. The city’s leadership team convened on March 2 and began implementing the city’s continuity of operations plan.
The Mercer Island Thrift Shop — a main revenue source for Mercer Island Youth and Family Services (YFS) — was closed March 3 and 4 for cleaning due to a staff-reported suspected but not confirmed case of the virus. It was the spouse of an employee, but they were not eligible to be tested, Bon said. After closing the Thrift Shop and following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines, it reopened the next day.
On March 4 the city canceled its March 4 Planning Commission meeting, March 5 Parks and Recreation Commission meeting, and a Friday Night Film event on March 6.
On March 5 the city declared an emergency and activated its Emergency Operations Center. Staff are working in the EOC regularly and monitoring the situation, including the emergency manager.
The declaration of emergency streamlines processes and allows the city to quickly receive materials and supplies needed during an emergency. One immediate action taken was to have city buildings deep cleaned.
The Luther Burbank Park Administration building that houses YFS — including counseling — and the Parks and Recreation departments, was closed March 5 and 6 due to a suspected but not confirmed cased being reported by an employee who was not eligible to be tested. The building was closed and deep cleaned.
On March 6 the city announced cancellation of all public meetings through March 20. On March 9 the city made the decision to cancel all recreation programs and events through April 12 and close the Mercer Island Community and Event Center. On March 10 they decided to close the Luther Burbank building to the public.
On March 11 Gov. Inslee announced the three-county ban on gatherings of 250 people or more. The city had already canceled any such events. PHSKC also issued an order that prohibits all events fewer than 250 without steps taken to minimize risk. The Thrift Shop announced modified retail hours, and the MISD announced the school closure beginning March 13. (Editor’s note: that has been reduced to bans on gatherings of 50 or more people as of Monday, March 16.)
On March 12 the city announced the closure of City Hall to the public. It also announced later that evening two positive cases of COVID-19 on Mercer Island.
Bon commended city staff, many of whom are telecommuting or adapting to new roles, for working around the clock and being dedicated to public service. She said the city’s top priority is maintaining essential functions, including police and fire services.
Fire Chief Steve Heitman gave an update on the Mercer Island Fire Department and Police Chief Ed Holmes gave an update on the Mercer Island Police Department. Both went over some procedural changes in their respective departments as well as precautions being taken and talked about personal protective equipment (PPE) for first responders.
They emphasized the importance of following regional health recommendations, including good hygiene practices, and communication. They said they are working with regional partners and updating their practices daily. As of the briefing they said they are fully staffed and well stocked with proper supplies.
“I take the safety of the Island particularly seriously. So when we face issues like we’re facing with this virus, the safety of the Island weighs heavily on my soul. What I think about a lot is keeping our officers healthy … so they can respond to the emergency calls that we get,” Holmes said.
Heitman said dispatch is screening calls and firefighters will be wearing full PPE for some of the calls they respond to. So, seeing crews dawning masks, eyewear or even gowns when they enter a home or a facility is no cause for alarm.
“If you happen to see our crews going into some type of facility or someone’s home and they’re all wearing full PPE, it does not mean that someone has COVID-19. It means that we are protecting the firefighters because we cannot afford to have to send them off to quarantine for 14 days just to see if they get symptoms,” he said.
An update also was given on YFS by director Cindy Goodwin. She said they are continuing to provide all services in modified ways.
“Our goal with YFS is to continue providing mental health services and make sure that we can continue to provide basic needs to our most vulnerable people,” she said.
While the Luther Burbank building is closed to the public, YFS will still have counselors conducting phone and video therapy. They will also still provide food and financial assistance. Groceries will be handed off at the door. The Food Pantry will no longer be accepting food donations but will be accepting food gift cards.
School-based counselors still will be able to work with students and families, and rental and utility assistance will be available. Case management services will still be operating.
“Anybody can call in and they will hook them up with resources,” Goodwin said. “Reach out if there is a need for you or a neighbor.”
The Thrift Shop is still open daily in order to fund these services and is frequently cleaned.
“We’d like to be here and be able to continue funding the services that are so important for people,” Goodwin said. “Our first concern is making sure we’re here for everyone and that our kids that are high needs, our children who might be in crisis right now, that we’re staying with them, that families know that we’re staying with them and that we’re here. So give out our number and follow our website. We’ll be here with you through it.”
YFS intake line is still open, 206-275-7657. Information and service updates are communicated via the YFS Facebook page and the city’s website.
Bon concluded the briefing by reminding everyone to take precautions, practice good hygiene, and follow regional health organization recommendations. She also encouraged teaching these practices to young children and making sure families are prepared. She said the city is also relying on people checking on their neighbors.
“This community, Mercer Island, will come together, is coming together, and we will get through this,” she said.
She said the city will continue to focus on its top priority of providing essential functions to the community. She acknowledged fears in the community regarding families, people at risk, the elderly, the economy, the threat to local business.
“I want to acknowledge that those concerns and fears are real, and I believe that if we continue to work together, we’ll be able to get through this and manage through this,” she said. “The city is absolutely prepared. We’ve been working hard in anticipation of something like this happening. But over the last 10-12 days we have had the gas pedal down. Every single staff person is working on the response. Our essential functions will continue.”
Bon said there will be future briefings with updated information and all COVID-19 news will be immediately pushed out via social media and the city’s website.