Editor’s note: A new case of COVID-19 was announced in San Juan County on June 15, after this article was published.
While San Juan County was eligible to request to move to Phase Three of Gov. Jay Inslee’s Safe Start, Stay Health plan, Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James was reluctant to pursue that action just yet.
“It’s a very difficult decision for me. … In order for us to know what’s happening in our community, it takes time — to identify the cases of infection and to gauge the risk going forward,” James told the county council during a June 9 meeting. “To move forward carefully and effectively, I believe we need to balance both the immediate health and safety of our citizens and the economic opportunity — which has definite health benefits from that activity.”
James suggested to the council that the county waits until June 24 to request moving to Phase Three. He noted asymptomatic testing is set to begin June 16 and though it’s been three weeks since the county moved to Phase Two, the time since reopening lodging at 50 percent has not been long enough to know whether that will result in an increase in positive cases.
“I believe it will take about three weeks from [June 3] to really know the impact of the specific actions we’ve taken and be able to gauge what that’s going to mean for our community and if, in fact, it’s safe to move forward from this point forward,” James said.
He noted that while locals are doing a good job of social distancing and wearing masks, the number of infected people across the state has yet to fall to levels that are acceptable for reopening. Counties of concern to James include those adjacent to San Juan County.
James said he is also worried about the protests for Black Lives Matter, which have been happening in communities still afflicted by COVID, such as Seattle. He noted that while local protests have been in adherence to public health measures meant to prevent the spread of disease, he fears that they’ll still affect the county.
“That isn’t true in all the adjacent counties that are the source of most of our tourists,” James said. “There’s almost certainly going to be a significant rebound in cases in those areas and those are the places that tourists are going to be coming from, primarily.”
James explained he believes it is better to go forward more slowly than to move forward and have to retreat should an infection breakout.
“I never want to tell people, ‘We have to go back. We have to go back to being significantly more restrictive than we have been in the past,’” James said. “I believe that it’s more sensible, more sane and more effective to move forward a little bit more slowly.”
As of June 6, seven counties were permitted by the state to move to Phase Three. James said those communities aren’t like San Juan County, though, which experiences a large amount of tourism.
“I think we need to find out if that’s going to work before we take an additional step forward,” James said.
The three members of the county council were not pleased with James’ assessment, however.
“This is blindsiding,” Councilmember Jamie Stephens said. “It seems like it’s based on emotion.”
Until there is a vaccine or treatment, Stephens explained, the county is going to have to continue with proper measures. He said he believes James was adding criteria that weren’t in evidence and reiterated that the Washington State Department of Health’s rules require 14 days without a case to move forward.
“I do follow the same sentiment as Mr. Stephens. I’m incredibly disappointed at this change in direction,” Councilmember Rick Hughes said. “I don’t understand. I’m concerned. We have been the most restrictive county in the state. … I think if we applied, the state would give us a thumbs up and a green light to go ahead. I’m just so confused, I don’t understand.”
Hughes noted he would have been more reluctant to encourage the reopening of lodging if he knew it would reset the timeline for moving to Phase Three. He added that the county is prepared with personal protection equipment shipments, contact tracing organize and asymptomatic testing beginning.
“We need to move forward. We at least need to have the opportunity for the state to decide if they think it’s a good time for us to move forward,” Hughes said. “We need to move forward now, in a safe manner. But we need to move forward.”
Councilmember Bill Watson said he understands James’ desire to wait and see how the lodging reopening affects the community but isn’t sure waiting is the best idea.
“We’re going to have to live with COVID moving forward — whether we do it on the 13th or 24th,” Watson said. “This just demonstrates the difficulty of this question because there is no clear, correct answer. It’s a balancing act between public health and public economic benefit activity. Where’s the right balancing point?”
James explained he has spoken with numerous community members and business owners about reopening.
“There’s nobody I am prouder of than the business people that are taking this job on and moving forward,” James said. “But we’ve got to have data to feedback to them to tell them what’s successful and what’s not and on the 13th, we’re not going to have that data.”
According to James, asymptomatic testing should be able to confirm whether up to 50 community residents have COVID. He said he is concerned, however, because with symptomatic testing there is a significant delay between exposure and onset of disease. Moving to Phase Three ends the restriction on non-essential travel and would essentially open the county borders to tourists entirely.
“Honestly, I have to tell you. I honestly don’t think we’re ready,” James said. “The last thing that I want to do is have us move forward then have something that requires us to move back. That would be disheartening to everybody that I think could do a great deal of damage to our community and our unity.”
James said he believes there will be a rebound in cases on the west side of Washington in the next week or two because of the unforeseen Black Lives Matter gatherings.
“We are a small county with a very limited, finite human resource to get these jobs done. … It’s a reach for us, it’s a significant reach for us. We have to be able to succeed, we have to have the opportunity for success and by moving forward too quickly I think we potentially take away that opportunity for success,” James said. “It would be very disruptive to try to move forward and fail and have to go back.”
Hughes acknowledged James’ concern but added that he has heard from restaurant owners who have said that having 50 percent capacity has been okay for now, but it is not sustainable.
“We’re threading a needle at a point in time that could have catastrophic financial impacts on our businesses in our community,” Hughes said. “How about the other businesses that have been waiting patiently that haven’t been able to open. How is that necessarily fair?”
Hughes added that the tourism industry would be affected by the reduced ferry schedule, regardless of whether the county moves to Phase Three. He added that since there is still a pandemic, fewer people will want to travel, anyway, and he doesn’t see the hotels filling with tourists.
“I get all the same emails you get and more, by people who are directly impacted by my actions,” James said. “I take that very, very seriously. It’s not like I’m not hearing that people are desperate for economic opportunity.”
James said he would not have a letter available for the council to review on June 13. He noted it is “logically and rationally” impossible to assume San Juan County will never have another case of COVID, adding that he feels the pressure of the responsibility thrust upon him by the outbreak of disease.
“I don’t seek that kind of power at all,” James said. “I don’t want it, but it’s what I’ve been given.”