With COVID-19, major changes for state, island

With COVID-19, major changes for state, island

At press conference Thursday, Gov. Jay Inslee said he may need to extend two-week stay-at-home order

A proclamation signed Monday by Gov. Jay Inslee aims to aggressively curb the movement and interaction of Washingtonians and prevent the spread of COVID-19 by shutting down businesses deemed non-essential and banning public and private gatherings of people, including weddings, funerals and celebrations of life.

The order came days after regional transit agencies implemented their own protective measures system-wide against the novel coronavirus, and several island organizations and restaurants considered their own strategies and means of operation as more cases were confirmed.

Gov. Inslee’s stay-at-home mandate allows residents to go outside, and for certain businesses such as grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies to remain open. Restaurants and bars may continue to offer take-out and drive-through food options. The stay home order applies to much of the general public, though Inslee’s office released a 14-page list of workers whose jobs are considered “essential” and critical following a live news conference. They cover a range of sectors, from health care to defense, public works to the news media.

“This does not mean you can’t go outside. If you feel like going for a walk, gardening, going for a bike ride, we consider these things essential activities for everyone’s physical and mental health. We all just need to practice social distancing of at least six feet to protect ourselves and others everywhere all the time,” Inslee said.

He warned those who don’t heed the order.

“Make no mistake, this order is enforceable by law,” he said.

Monday’s directive is another in a continuum of actions undertaken by Inslee in response to the worsening situation. Just two weeks ago, Inslee ordered the closures of schools in Snohomish, King and Pierce counties, including public and private K through 12 schools. The next day, he mandated the closure of all K through 12 public and private schools in every district across the state of Washington.

Last week, Inslee and state officials announced an emergency proclamation ordering the immediate closure of all restaurants, bars, entertainment and recreation facilities statewide in addition to further limits imposed on large gatherings over 50 people as numbers of COVID-19 infections in Washington and the country have continued to rise.

The latest order immediately bans all gatherings of people for social, spiritual and recreational purposes, including events that affect the old and the young in the state.

“If you want to have parties on the beach or play pick-up basketball or have sleepovers, these are no longer allowed for at least a couple weeks,” Inslee said, adding that businesses designated for closure have 48 hours to do so unless deemed essential and employees can work remotely without coming into physical contact with each other.

The new stay-at-home order — which Inslee has previously resisted, even though Washington has been one of the nation’s epicenters — was necessitated by the fact that too few are following recommendations by his office and Public Health – Seattle and King County, he said at Monday’s address.

“I have heard from health officials, local officials and others, that people still aren’t practicing these precautions, and that is one of the reasons why we have to take these steps,” he said, reiterating that the goal remains the same: To reduce social and physical interactions, thereby eliminating the pathways in which the highly contagious virus can spread. “This weapon, distancing ourselves, is the only weapon against this virus, and we have proven that it can work, but only if we actually use it,” Inslee said.

Significant changes have been made seemingly at breakneck speed to most facets of everyday life in Washington and across much of the world due to the coronavirus pandemic. The traditional school day in several states has been upended by closures, while educators migrate lessons and content online and students from Pre-K to college attempt to learn at home.

That prompted Chris Reykdal, Washington Superintendent of Public Instruction, to release new, specific guidance this week for educators about continuing instruction despite the hiatus by Monday, March 30. Among his reason was that districts and school communities are responding to a new set of priorities “in an unparalleled manner,” noting that what students need from schools during this time will vary, and many will need additional supports and accommodations.

Among those accommodations is childcare. Last week, Reykdal tasked school district superintendents to develop plans for providing families — namely health care workers and first responders — with adequate childcare, a priority of Gov. Inslee’s. On the island, Vashon Youth and Family Services (VYFS) planned to open a hybrid version of the agency’s Vashon Kids program this week in partnership with the Vashon Island School District at Chautauqua Elementary School. But Inslee’s stay at home order has forced VYFS to offer the program only for children whose parents are doing “essential work” as defined by the governor.

“VYFS is committed to providing what services we can in whatever fashion is allowed,” said David Carleton, community engagement manager at the agency. That includes mental health and substance abuse counseling, virtual parenting support and counseling through Family Place, and Oasis Emergency Services for travel vouchers.

As soon as the stay at home mandate is lifted, Carleton said, Vashon Kids will be open to help working families and those in need of childcare and enrichment programs.

“We will be ready the second the order is lifted and working families have the opportunity to go back to work,” said Carleton, adding some staff at VYFS were laid off but that additional furloughs for other hourly workers are not likely. Islanders are asked to contact vashonkids@vyfs.org or call 206-930-2592 for any questions.

In a phone conversation, district superintendent Slade McSheehy said the district is providing limited childcare for the families of healthcare and emergency workers. The new meals program, he added, served 220 district students last Friday.

Change is not limited to schools. As restrictions on local businesses tighten, some have made the decision to close until further notice, such as The Rock Island Pizza. Others have adjusted their business models or are embracing technology for patrons to use for making orders online such as Pure Kitchen & Juicery in town.

Meanwhile, scores of people everywhere now conduct their work by telecommuting. On that note, earlier on Monday, King County Metro rolled back service, including individual trip cancellations and the suspension of some routes altogether, citing lower ridership.

In a statement last week announcing the schedule revisions, Metro said the reductions were being made with those who rely heavily or exclusively on bus service in mind, adding that there is no plan to reduce the agency’s current workforce.

“We’re actively talking with community groups who represent populations likely to depend on transit, including those that represent customers with accessibility challenges. We will remain engaged with them to understand their mobility needs and determine how best to serve them during this time,” Metro said.

Riders will not be required to pay a fare when riding Metro services, including buses, water taxi and Access transit, until further notice. Riders also will be directed to board and exit at the rear doors of buses, reserving front-door access for customers using mobility devices or who require the use of the boarding ramp.

“The core of what we do is provide safe transit for our employees, for our riders, for the region, and that is what we’re committed to doing each and every day no matter the conditions that are out there, said General manager Rob Gannon in an interview with reporters last week. “Our commitment is to the safety of the riding public and keeping communities connected.”

He added that the agency is working with King County Executive Dow Constantine and public health officials and would respond accordingly in the event of a shelter in place order.

“We know that there are still people who are dependent on transit at this moment and whether it’s to get to the grocery store or to a medical center or some vital appointment that could be deemed essential, we want to get the transit system running,” he said, adding that they are monitoring the situation on a daily basis.

When comparing March 18, 2019, and the same date in 2020, ridership was down 60% according to Metro.

A small handful of bus routes were not adjusted as part of the reductions made by Metro, including the 118 and 119 buses that serve Vashon-Maury Island. Bill Bryant, managing director of service development at Metro, told The Beachcomber that alternative transportation options on the island are hard to come by.

“We wanted to prioritize not leaving parts of the county without any types of transportation services,” he said, adding that the 118 and 119 are part of a very complex operation as some coaches leave the island for downtown Seattle. Bryant said more current information about the reduced schedule is available online, noting that some trip planning tools that people normally use are not going to be as accurate as they usually are. The online trip planning feature, as well as texting the ID number of bus stops to 62550, will provide riders with up to date information, he said.

Elsewhere, King County Water Taxi will continue to operate both the Vashon Island-Seattle route and West Seattle route fare-free on a reduced winter schedule for the foreseeable future. Ridership decreased 23% in the first two weeks of March, according to a statement, and to keep commute and peak service operable would require additional crew while using greater resources.

The story is more or less the same for Washington State Ferries. Spokesperson Hadley Rodero said the state’s largest transportation agency has maintained a full schedule despite fewer passengers with the awareness that ferries provide “a vital service for goods, first responders and for critical appointments and work, especially for island communities like Vashon.”

“We will continue to provide ferry service, but it could be reduced due to ridership numbers, availability of crew or other factors. We are not there right this second, but it’s a possibility in the coming days or weeks,” she wrote in an email.

Vashon Island Fire & Rescue Chief Charlie Krimmert said he has not been in contact with ferries about potential schedule impacts and that there has not been any pre-planning he is aware of for making fewer crossings. He noted that 80% of VIFR’s call volume is medical in nature and about half of those — twice a day on average — involve coordinating transport off-island, adding that so far into 2020, the volume of EMS calls has been light.

On Monday, WSF announced that as part of an effort to prepare for a significant decrease in ridership due to public health recommendations and maintaining sufficient crew on sailings, all state ferries will remain operating on their winter sailing schedules through at least April 25, including on the Fauntleroy/Vashon/Southworth route. Washington State Ferries’ spring season, which includes increased service on some routes, was originally scheduled to begin March 29.

WSF has announced that those with unused tickets or unspent balances on travel passes may be eligible for a refund. All refund requests can be submitted online, though the 90-day use period for tickets and travel passes will not be extended.

On Friday, public health announced 251 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the number in the county to 1,828, and 16 additional deaths for a total of 125.

This version of the article corrects information about the Vashon Kids program offered by Vashon Youth and Family Services. It is open to children whose parents are doing “essential work” as defined by the governor.

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