A string of event cancellations and sudden closures late last week prompted by concern over the spread of COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus disrupted the sense of normalcy on the island (Kevin Opsahl/Staff Photo).

A string of event cancellations and sudden closures late last week prompted by concern over the spread of COVID-19 or the novel coronavirus disrupted the sense of normalcy on the island (Kevin Opsahl/Staff Photo).

Island feels impact of virus

A string of cancellations and sudden closures last week disrupted the sense of normalcy on Vashon.

Editor’s note: Some of the information that appears in the print version of this article is outdated now. We will give updates on changes and further closures as we learn more. Please email editor@vashonbeachcomber.com or prowley@vashonbeachcomber.com with questions or news tips.

As fears over a growing outbreak of COVID-19 or novel (new) coronavirus in King County spread and officials urge the public not to gather in large crowds, the owners of some island shops and storefronts are feeling squeezed. But doors remain open, and for many in downtown Vashon, it’s business as usual.

Other hot spots are trying to adapt or deploy new strategies. But elsewhere on the island, it’s a different story, and following recommendations proposed by Public Health – Seattle & King County, several island eateries, organizations and agencies are adjusting their practices or canceling public gatherings.

‘We’ll hang in there’

Across the region, many would-be diners are choosing not to take their business to restaurants in favor of staying in as recommended by public health for those considered high-risk, including older people over 60 years of age, those who are pregnant or who have preexisting health conditions. That has led some establishments in the Seattle area to cut back hours and lay off hourly workers and part-time staff or close outright. But there was a sense of normalcy at The Ruby Brink restaurant on Vashon last week, where the server was busy taking orders, a young family took their seats in front of the butcher stand and others waited to be served at the bar.

Co-owner Jake Heil said the dinner rush has stayed busy in the last week but that fewer customers are coming for lunch. He said he recognizes the age demographics on the island generally skew older and that they are more vulnerable in the crisis. But he also said he believes that misinformed panic has economic ramifications for the entire small business community.

“We know we have people who might be immunocompromised, and of course, people have to make those choices for themselves, and we would never ask people to make choices that were uncomfortable [for them],” he said, adding that staff already practice comprehensive sanitation but are now being extra diligent in taking necessary precautions. That includes regularly disinfecting all surfaces, from door handles and pens to the point of sale system.

“Come out if you want to eat here and know that we’re taking it seriously as a staff,” said Heil.

The Ruby Brink (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

The Ruby Brink (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Across the street at The Hardware Store Restaurant, general manager Adam Chumas said there was an average number of customers coming through the door day by day. He said he and his staff were closely following the news and were taking the steps necessary to ensure the health and well-being of customers.

“We need to be aware and sensitive about what is going on and be responsive. We do have discussions on the staff about how to respond. Everybody knows if they are unwell not to come to work,” he said. “It’s important for us to make sure we’re acting responsibly.”

Up the street, Matthew Lawrence of Camp Colvos Brewing said he has not seen any change in business.

“Now it’s a matter of just staying in clear communication about what the standards are,” he said, adding that he has taken to Instagram to debut Colvos’s new hand washing station in the front of the taproom and to show that staff have begun using a green-certified peroxide cleaner and neutral disinfectant to clean all horizontal surfaces, door handles, and bathrooms in regular two-hour intervals.

Past the center of town, Michaella Olavarri, who owns Mica’s Kitchen, said she has seen an uptick in the number of customers who are wearing gloves and masks. She is cleaning and sanitizing the space daily, but a combination of the slow season and anxiety over the virus, she said, has meant that business — which is mostly to-go — is grinding to a halt.

“There are people who are coming and showing their support,” she said, adding that her bills are starting to mount. “We’ll hang in there. May is around the corner and that’s the turnaround point unless things get worse,” she said.

Last week, Gov. Jay Inslee convened a task force to compile a list of resources for businesses and workers impacted by the coronavirus in response to the economic downturn possible that may hit hourly wage workers and their employers the hardest. The list includes information about tax filing extensions, benefits, insurance coverage, and other assistance intended to help keep workplaces open and employees on the job. More information is available online.

Most shopkeepers in town said they were generally seeing the same amount of foot traffic in their stores. Cara Briskman of Herban Bloom said people were greeting each other like always, hugging and wishing each other well. Employees at the Vashon Bookstore said little has changed — there is a cup holder with sterilized pens by the register — though there is some quiet chatter in the aisles about the situation.

At Gather Vashon, those walking in off the street most often take a slow lap around the store to peruse the artwork, but employees are still wiping down door handles, pottery handled by prospective buyers and other surfaces with disinfectant wipes. Ara Lee James, who works there part-time, said she and musician Jamie Stillway recently moved to postpone their March 14 concert at Gather to benefit Vashon’s DOVE Project out of respect of growing concerns about crowd sizes.

That’s a unique conflict for the Vashon Theatre, which began showing Pixar’s “Onward” this weekend.

Owner Eileen Wolcott said there is value in entertainment as a distraction from worry during difficult times, but that her chief concern is for the health of her family, employees and guests. She added that staff is sanitizing every chair and all other surfaces before showings and encouraging audiences to spread out in the auditorium.

“We will continue to monitor the situation daily and adjust accordingly,” she wrote in an email, noting that the theater saw attendance drop as much as 40% or more last weekend.

On Sunday, Gov. Inslee appeared on the CBS program “Face The Nation,” and without offering many details, said that his administration was considering requirements around “social distancing,” potentially implementing restrictions on the movements and activities of Washingtonians in order to prevent more infections. Elaine Ott-Rocheford, Vashon Park District Executive Director, said she was paying close attention.

“When we start getting into that highly recommended, even mandated [policy], then that’s when things get really serious,” she said, adding that in the event of such restrictions she would propose district employees work from home and maintenance crews only attend to urgent work so long as they were protected.

There are currently no planned cancellations for upcoming program offerings through the district such as the Sailing Program and skate lessons at the Burton Adventure Recreation Center.

“We’re just sort of on pins and needles to see how this is going to play out before we have to start making those decisions,” said Ott-Rocheford, adding that the district has received some cancellations at the Ober Park exercise room and with lodging.

After press time on Tuesday, the board will consider a draft Infectious Disease and Public Health Emergency plan that Ott-Rocheford has drafted, which recommends in the event of a pandemic that lodging reservation cancellations be met with full refunds. The plan also provides guidelines intended to protect staff, all district facilities and park patrons from the spread of disease while maintaining general operations.

Adapting to threat

The seemingly subtle impact of the coronavirus threat in town was eclipsed by a string of event cancellations and sudden closures late last week, notably affecting the island’s arts scene, that emerged on the heels of new recommendations from county and public officials to reduce exposure.

On the afternoon of Thursday, March 5, Executive Director Catherine Swearingen announced the indefinite closure of the Vashon Senior Center building on Bank Road in order to protect the island’s vulnerable elderly population. She emphasized that there are no confirmed cases of the coronavirus among the center’s members or staff, but that the building would undergo sanitation and disinfection procedures. The sudden closure has affected all of the center’s regular programs and activities; Swearingen said that staff and volunteers would work remotely to connect seniors with basic services and information.

Islander Jim Brown, who uses an electric wheelchair, did not know the center had been closed when he arrived last Thursday afternoon. He said he usually drops by several times a week to eat and socialize.

“I come here basically for the people more than the food, even. It’s the staff, they’re really kind, good people,” he said, adding that he thought the response was overblown for Vashon, though he acknowledged that many islanders commute and may be in contact with sick individuals.

“At least we have it most of the time. The senior center is a really important thing on the island,” he said.

A note on the door of the Vashon Senior Center says the facility will be closed on Friday, March 6, but the executive director announced on Thursday it is in fact closed for “the foreseeable future” due to concerns of COVID-19. (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo)

A note on the door of the Vashon Senior Center says the facility will be closed on Friday, March 6, but the executive director announced on Thursday it is in fact closed for “the foreseeable future” due to concerns of COVID-19. (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo)

On Monday, after a staff meeting to discuss further strategies regarding meals and providing other services, Swearingen said that priority was being given to seniors who come in for lunch and that staff and volunteers would coordinate food deliveries “because we want to make sure they get at least one good meal a day,” she said.

“Half of this island is seniors, but for the ones that are living alone who may not have any family around, who don’t drive, those are the ones who are a higher priority and making sure [they get] what they need,” she said. “What do you do if you’re stuck at home for a month?”

She added that staff will be conducting wellness checks and setting up a phone tree. Swearingen said that anyone can call the center’s main number at 206-463-5173 and though there may not be an answer, staff are checking voicemail every day.

“We’ll weather this, we’ll take care of our folks and see what we can do,” she said.

On the same day that the senior center closed, the board of the Vashon Food Bank moved to suspend its customer shopping model. Starting this week, volunteers will only hand out bags packed with essentials in the parking lot; the food bank’s home delivery service will continue and any food bank customer who would like to sign up may do so throughout this week. An additional delivery day was added on Friday to accommodate new customers.

“We’re prepared to kind of flex depending on how things change, and this is really kind of on the fly,” said Executive Director Emily Scott, who cited public health recommendations for community groups to avoid hosting large groups of more than 10 people, as the food bank’s small distribution space can quickly fill up with shoppers and volunteers. She added that the food bank will remain open for normal hours.

“We want to reiterate that we will be open until we’re not,” she said.

Julie Acteson, a spokesperson for The King County Library System, said the decision to cancel all programming for the month of March system-wide, including at the Vashon Library, came as a result of the recommendations about hosting more than 10 people in a space. She noted that the measure does not apply to reservations of meeting rooms booked by the public.

(On Wednesday, KCLS suspended all use of meeting rooms and small study rooms until further notice, in addition to implementing other measures to protect patrons and staff. Events and programs are now canceled through April 15.)

Meanwhile, officials at numerous agencies are trying to keep things moving as best as possible. Last week, Washington State Ferries suggested that drivers consider staying in their vehicles while aboard, and maintain a personal distance of six feet from other passengers. Jeff Switzer, a spokesperson for King County Metro, said the buses serving Vashon are rotated daily back to Metro’s facility in Tukwila for disinfecting. There was no data available about ridership or whether there have been declines in light of recommendations that employees work from home, but Switzer suspected they were.

“What we’ve seen regionally though, anecdotally it looks like fewer people are traveling, which is part of what the public health department is recommending, and so we’re making assumptions that potentially more people are working from home,” he said.

Last week, Slade McSheehy, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District, shared a memo with families from public health addressed to school administrators and nurses about how they can slow the spread of the coronavirus while best serving their students. Public health recommends against closing schools due to considerations around timing, equability, disruptions to learning, and burdening families. But health officials encourage administrators, teachers and staff considered high-risk to stay home and use leave benefits when possible.

School busses approach the four-way stop in downtown Vashon on Monday morning (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

School busses approach the four-way stop in downtown Vashon on Monday morning (Paul Rowley/Staff Photo).

Leave requirements are different for everyone, McSheehy said, adding that Human Resources, school principals and staff are having conversations throughout this week about how to protect those who are most vulnerable. He said the daily loss of staff considered at high risk would create a significant deficit: 38% of all staff at the district fall into the at-risk, 60 or older/pregnant categories. That includes bus drivers.

“Our district is taking, and will continue to take, a measured response,” he said, adding that there has not been an increase in absenteeism in the student body, though some in the community have asked that the schools be closed.

“We will continue to monitor the situation as it develops,” he said.

UPDATE: In a message to families Wednesday evening, McSheehy announced that the school district will be closing all schools beginning Friday, March 13. The last day for students will be Thursday, March 12. The closure is planned to last until Friday, April 24. The school board will meet as planned at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 12, at Chautauqua Elementary School to discuss coronavirus impacts and planning.

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