Proceeding with caution: Island County moves toward Phase III

— Created June 17, 2020 by Kathy Reed

Editor’s Note: Whidbey Weekly learned just prior to going to press that the camping ban has been lifted for Island County, effective immediately.

By Kathy Reed

Island County is moving steadily toward Phase III of the state’s “Safe Start” plan to reopen businesses. County commissioners and the Island County Board of Health met Tuesday (after Whidbey Weekly’s press deadline) to make the final decision to submit the Phase III application to the State Department of Health.

“We are frontloading as much of the application as possible,” Island County Commissioner Jill Johnson told Whidbey Weekly via email last week. “So we will be ready to go, staff is working…to take all the data from Friday to run the calculations. We will post all of that information that goes into the application on Sunday/Monday and then take the votes we need to submit for the variance on Tuesday.”

At that point, it will be up to state health officials to make the decision. There are three options: approve the application in its entirety, approve certain portions of the application or reject the application altogether.

“The application process is detailed,” said Keith Higman, Island County Public Health Director. “Our Phase II application was 62 pages long. I believe that the application process is complex because decisions involving changing the way we interact and consume goods and services are important decisions.”

Island County got a decision on it’s Phase II application in just one day, although there is no way of knowing exactly how long it will take state officials to make a decision this time around. It is possible, by the time this paper publishes, that Island County could already be in Phase III.

The reopening process has been a long, arduous one for many small business owners and the population in general, as government entities across the board try to balance economic needs with public health needs. While many officials agree the initial shutdown was necessary to try to control the COVID-19 outbreak, others are not pleased with the inconsistencies of the Safe Start plan.

“I was supportive of the Governor’s leadership when things first shut down and case counts were rising,” said Johnson. “The actions he took worked. I am not at all pleased about the reopening ‘plan’ and the inconsistencies in messaging, advice and directives. The activities in the phases seem arbitrary, many of the one-size-fits-all protocols are not warranted in every situation, and every time I watched instructions roll out to a business or industry days after the business was allowed to open, I just wanted to scream. 

“So no, I do not feel the reopening plan was well thought out, or is being well implemented,” she continued. “Keeping people home was a bold decision and not a bad one; not knowing how they would get back to work and resume a certain level of activity would have been something I’d have thought they would have figured out before the economic shutdown. Don’t turn off your car if you don’t know how to restart it.”

In addition to the activities and businesses allowed in Phases I and II of the reopening plan, Phase III allows for outdoor group recreational/sports activities of 50 people or less; recreational facilities like gyms and public pools can operate at 50 percent capacity; gatherings of no more than 50 people can resume, as can non-essential travel; restaurants can operate at up to 75 percent capacity and bar areas in restaurants and taverns can operate at 25 percent capacity; movie theaters can open at 50 percent capacity; libraries and museums may reopen; and all other business activities and events with no more than 50 people can resume, with the exception of nightclubs. Tele-work is still strongly encouraged.

When Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order expired May 31, the state moved to a county-by-county approach for reopening, which requires at least three weeks between each phase of the Safe Start plan. Some local officials said they appreciate the flexibility this has provided.

“I appreciate that the Governor understands one size does not fit all in this situation,” said Island County Commissioner Helen Price Johnson. “Also, I think this process has been difficult for everyone, but it is responsive to the unusual circumstances we face with this pandemic.”

That flexibility allowed Island County to continue the camping ban when it moved to Phase II, but commissioners expect that restriction to be lifted when the county moves into Phase III, at least for state campgrounds.

“The Commissioners discussed the camping ban at our [last] work session meeting,” Price Johnson said. “Based on that, I expect that camping will be allowed in Phase III. The state’s sanitation requirements exceed the capacity of Island County Parks staffing levels, so this will prevent Rhododendron Park Campground from reopening at this time.”

“Now that all the surrounding counties have opened for Phase II, our fear of having a rush of out-of-town campers from counties that were still experiencing high case counts has been dramatically diminished,” Commissioner Johnson explained.

But a loosening of restrictions does not mean people should let their guard down, said officials. COVID-19 is still a threat.

“We don’t have an escalation of case counts to warrant any further restrictions, but it’s important to remember that people can still catch the virus and people still die from it,” Johnson said. “The expectation isn’t that there will be no cases, the expectation is that we will not get more cases than we can handle through our healthcare system. So at this stage, our data is saying ‘good to go,’ but our messaging is still ‘be careful and don’t take unnecessary risks.'”

“We continue to remind everyone that we still need to social distance, wear masks where appropriate and regularly wash your hands,” said Higman.

For now, the consensus is that everyone should be optimistic, but proceed with caution.

“Until we are vaccinated, this virus is present in our communities and it can spread quickly,” said Johnson. “It is scary, there is still a lot about it that is unknown, and although I don’t want people to live in fear, we can’t live in denial, either. So stay vigilant. The best way to support your family, your local business community, first responders, our high risk populations, is to live like the virus is all around you. Limit your movements between businesses and your contact with others, maintain social distance, keep your hands washed, be respectful of others and stay home if you’re sick. The COVID-19 pandemic is not over; the goal is to keep it at a manageable level to limit loss of life and not overwhelm our healthcare system. We can do that through good choices.”

“I’m very grateful for our islanders and local businesses being so diligent in following safety measures,” said Price Johnson. “It is great news that we’ve successfully flattened the curve of this virus on our islands. Let’s keep up this effort as we move forward.”

Find the latest information on Island County’s move to Phase III at