Phased reopening draws complaints, raises concerns

— Created May 15, 2020 by Kathy Reed

By Kathy Reed

Just a week into the first part of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased approach to reopening the state’s businesses, confusion and consternation seem to be in the driver’s seat.

While a majority of people seem to support the plan to reopen the economy slowly and safely, there has been some confusion over how businesses were “sorted” into the four different categories. On Whidbey Island, one of the focal points has been the question of why it’s alright to offer drive-in religious services but not allow the local drive-in theater to open.

A petition to allow the Blue Fox Drive-In Theater in Oak Harbor to open is circulating online. A post on the theater’s Facebook page encourages people to sign the petition and contact the governor to allow the business to open immediately.

“The bottom line is if we do not get to reopen soon, we will be forced to close,” the post reads. “We had a terrible winter and now being forced to close during our busiest time of year is catastrophic. We need everyone to sign our petition, write our governor. Allow the Blue Fox Drive-In and all Washington drive-ins to open.”

The criteria outlined by Gov. Inslee in regard to drive-in spiritual services is very specific. Vehicle occupants must be from the same household, no one is allowed to get out of the vehicle at any time, doors, windows and sunroofs need to be closed unless there is at least six feet of space between vehicles and no food or drink can be offered or served at the venue.

Based on that criteria, Blue Fox is not allowed to operate at this time, but there could be a break on the horizon.

“It is possible we could consider drive-in movie theaters in Phase 2,” said Mike Falk, deputy communications director for Gov. Inslee. “No decision has been made. As our plan mentions, the list provided in the phases is not exclusive.”

It is that ambiguity and the uncertain timeline between each phase of the reopening that is causing some of the confusion. Island County Commissioners, who planned to discuss sending a letter to the governor at Tuesday’s regular meeting, said they feel the plan doesn’t necessarily fit the unique business landscape that is Whidbey Island.

“Individually, commissioners have been communicating with the Governor’s office throughout this crisis,” said Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “We are now all thinking it is time we communicate with one voice about Island County’s circumstances”

Under the “Safe Start” plan, counties with populations of less than 75,000 which have not had a new case of COVID-19 for three weeks can apply for a variance to move to Phase II earlier than the rest of the state. Island County meets all criteria but the new case requirement. Still, Price Johnson said the fact there is a variance offered at all means there could me a willingness to work with counties to address the needs of small businesses.

“The Governor’s variance application process for smaller counties demonstrates to me that he understands local dynamics do influence risk with this virus,” she said. “Island County has a story to tell about that also. With so many very small businesses here, they are not receiving the assistance from most of the federal recovery programs. We need to help our communities through this crisis and keep people safe. This also means preserving the very fabric of our island communities through our locally owned businesses and nonprofits.”

“I think the decisions and plan [for reopening the state] were an initial attempt to cap a pandemic,” said Commissioner Janet St. Clair. “Now we can use the fact that those efforts were effective to be more strategic in our advocacy and guidance.

“I would like to advocate for an approach that addresses some of the items in Phase 2 and Phase 3 and request modifications to the plan, including moving up [new] construction with full guideline requirements…as existing construction, moving retail (including art galleries in this item) to reopening with retail guidance and the same for office-based service businesses,” St. Clair continued. “This is a precise approach I hope balances economic impact against public health risks.”

 Blue Fox owners the efforts will come in time to save the business from a permanent closure.

“We are a small, family business that has been operating under the same owners since 1988,” owners posted on Facebook. “As drive-in owners, you hope and pray for good weather and good family movies; and summer never seems to last long enough.

“We feel that we CAN offer a safe environment as a drive-in movie theater and had previously been granted a waiver by the governor’s office to be in operation until the statewide stay at home mandate was issued. Unfortunately, at this time we have been unable to get any clarification from the governor’s office on when drive-in theaters can reopen.”

For those interested in signing the online petition to allow Blue Fox to open, go to and search “Exception for Drive-In Movie Theatres.” Whidbey Weekly did reach out to the owners of Blue Fox but did not receive responses in time to meet our press deadline.

Other Safety Measures

As Island County moves forward with “Safe Start” measures, some communities on Whidbey are cracking down on safety precautions.

Langley Mayor Tim Callison issued a proclamation last week ordering face masks must be worn within the central business core for the foreseeable future. The boundaries are from 4th Street to Seawall Park and Park Avenue to Wharf Street. Callison’s proclamation applies to residents and visitors alike but does not apply to those traveling through the business district in or on a vehicle or within private residences.

At this point no such recommendation has come before Island County Commissioners and there are no current plans in Oak Harbor to make face masks mandatory.

“The Governor’s orders do not include mandatory face coverings,” said Sabrina Combs, public information officer for the City of Oak Harbor. “The City will continue to monitor this issue and take action if it is deemed appropriate. At this time, local businesses can make their own decisions. People [should] come prepared with a mask on their person or in their vehicle in case a business requires it.”

Here are some basic guidelines on how to wear a face mask properly, as provided by King County, which is now directing all its residents to wear face coverings in most public settings:

Find Gov. Inslee’s full “Safe Start” plan here: