Mayors of small cities around King County are asking the state to allow them to reopen businesses ahead of bigger cities.
Gov. Jay Inslee recently announced a plan to fully reopen the state — county by county — in four phases. Several counties around the state have low enough infection rates that they could begin reopening immediately. Counties that have an infection rate of 10 per 100,000 residents or lower for two weeks can begin opening up some businesses like restaurants and hair salons.
However, King County as a whole remains well above that level.
But there have been requests from mayors of small counties in east King County to reopen. At a May 19 Enumclaw City Council meeting, council members approved a letter to be sent to the governor’s office. The letter argued that the city should be allowed to move to Phase 2.
The cities of North Bend, Snoqualmie, Duvall and Carnation were also expected to sign on to their own letter asking the same of the state.
Enumclaw Mayor Jan Molinaro said the state so far has not authorized them to do so.
“Basically their position is they do not look at giving partial variances. We would have to move as a county, all as one,” he said.
The state’s response was to question how the city would be able to prevent people from other communities from coming to the city to shop. Molinaro said he asked for the same guidance that large stores like Costco and Walmart have received on how to remain open and apply that guidance to small businesses in town.
“I have yet to receive an answer,” Molinaro said.
North Bend Mayor Rob McFarland similarly hopes his city will be allowed to reopen ahead of the county as a whole. In an email, he said North Bend plans on remaining under Phase 1 until the city gets approval to move to the next phase.
“Recently, I came to the conclusion that we are ready to enter Phase 2 and I’m hopeful that the governor will move us to Phase 2 very shortly,” he said. “Should the governor support distinguishing our more rural/geographically separated towns, we would move to the new phase as quickly as practical.”
Snoqualmie Mayor Matt Larson said the letter being sent by cities in the Snoqualmie Valley is asking the governor to treat smaller, rural cities like rural counties in the state, which are being allowed to proceed to Phase 2. He estimated that if the lockdown continues, the majority of small businesses in his city will be forced to close permanently.
“It’s not as safe as certainly everyone hunkering down at home, but the economic cost is so great that at some point… you’re going to start seeing very unhealthy manifestations of that,” he said.
The three ZIP codes that house North Bend, Snoqualmie and Enumclaw have had a combined 129 cases of positive test results for COVID-19, and 25 people have died. It’s a small slice of the nearly 8,000 positive test results and 552 deaths countywide, according to King County’s COVID-19 tracking dashboard.
A spokesperson for the state Department of Health said in an email that the current criteria for allowing counties to move to Phase 2 is still in effect, and cities are not allowed to open ahead of counties. However, the state is discussing whether that guidance will change on June 1 when Inslee’s original “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order expires.
Dr. Kathy Lofy, the Washington State Department of Health’s State Health Office, said the initial plan was to reopen as a state. But they quickly realized that the differences county to county meant that approach didn’t make sense.
“We haven’t really discussed moving to the city level. That does really complicate things, logistically, because it’s even hard to keep track of 39 counties and what stage everybody is in,” she said. “We’re really committed to the county approach.”
Lofy said she wouldn’t rule out cities being allowed to enter phases ahead of the counties where they are located.
The 10 cases per 100,000 population for a two-week period requirement to reopen comes from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommendations. Lofy said moving forward, the state may not use the same criteria.