No hasty green-lights during COVID-19 / Letter to the Whatcom County Council

Click the graphic to access a copy of Whatcom County Council Member Ben Elenbaas’s “Letter to Governor as amended on 5.19.2020” on the Whatcom County website

May 21, 2020  Dena Jensen

Subject: Please develop resources to help businesses and community members be resilient during the current health emergency

Dear Whatcom County Council:

So far, I have listened to the first two hours and the last hour of your 5 hour Whatcom County Council meeting from May 19, 2020. During that time a lot of attention was brought by Council Member Ben Elenbaas to the idea that the Coronavirus is going to stay with us for a long time, perhaps infinitely. He has, on numerous occasions, promoted the position that everyone in the business community here in Whatcom County knows the right thing to do to have their businesses be open to in-person customers now, and that day he described our local agencies and health department as robust and asserted this was indicative of Whatcom County’s readiness to make decisions that could currently override Governor Inslee’s Safe Start Program timeline. Council Member Elenbaas has asserted that business owners know the measures to take to mitigate the threats of COVID-19, and that those owners will be motivated to protect their businesses. 

Meanwhile over the past couple months, some Council Members, Council Member Byrd and Council Member Elenbaas among those, have often called into question Whatcom County’s Health Department’s approach and handling of our current health emergency. To me, the commitment of the Whatcom County Health Department and Unified Command to taking action, and their persistence in doing so, have been commendable. And yet, from the beginning, extending to the present, there has been input from these agencies, as recently as your 5/19/20 meeting, that indicate the workload presented by the pandemic definitely rises to the level of overwhelming even their considerable abilities on numerous occasions and in numerous ways. 

On Tuesday, Whatcom Unified Command Incident Commander Scott McCreery shared one of the present challenges being faced, despite his confidence in the competency of those working under Unified Command and the positive results of their efforts. With regular government agencies beginning to resume their functions that had been substantially reduced or put on pause during the initial stages of the health emergency, employees of those agencies who had brought their energies to Unified Command, who learned to be effective, and became relied upon in their new specialized roles, are now being called back to their previous positions, leaving significantly-felt holes in staffing for Unified Command. Unified Command is in the process now of trying to figure out how to address this particular challenge.

Council Members were also informed at the meeting by Whatcom Health Department Director Erika Lautenbach and Whatcom County Executive Satpal Sidhu that they are directing some of their limited resources on addressing the potential of Whatcom County experiencing COVID-19 outbreaks among agricultural workers as the harvest season is fast approaching, and around 6000 temporary workers will be arriving in our community soon. 

Yet with all of this knowledge, Council Members still proved to be supportive of completing a letter to Governor Inslee trying to obtain, in effect, a potential head-start on allowing more and more retailers to potentially expose their employees to physically interacting with each other and members of the public. Without enough people and established resources to provide ample oversight to educate and aid businesses in avoiding the tragic potential of a COVID-19 outbreak, I feel we will be doing those businesses a great disservice in giving them a hasty green light. 

In Montgomery, Alabama, which in 2019 had a population of 226,486, they had a cumulative total of 355 confirmed COVID-19 cases at the end of April. A 5/20/20 Forbes article reported that:

 “With cases quickly rising, the city was placed on an unreleased White House hotspot watch list on May 7, according to NBC News, which obtained a copy of the report.

“But despite the rapid spread, businesses in the city were allowed to reopen starting May 11, after Governor Kay Ivey officially moved Alabama into Phase 1 of its reopening.” 

https://www.forbes.com/sites/nicholasreimann/2020/05/20/dire-situation-in-alabama-capital-icus-full-coronavirus-cases-double-in-may/?utm_campaign=forbes&utm_source=facebook&utm_medium=social&utm_term=Gordie%2F&fbclid=IwAR2dS6mUWqzaG-qBBTFQEIf2FAduJNT4AH7LxKn5HkwGgi7h34nlTs0GHUQ#5b0dfac04fa3

The mayor says their health care system is maxed out now, and as of today, three weeks beyond those 355 COVID-19 cases at the end of April, the city of Montgomery’s number of confirmed cases is 823. 

How can this be good for businesses? When COVID-19 cases rise, many workers and customers are going to become cautious and make themselves unavailable to businesses.  This is already playing out in fruit packing houses in Yakima, a county which now has a case rate of more than 1000 per 100,000 residents. Agricultural workers are going into a second week of strikes there over unsafe and unfair work conditions. Meanwhile, we know there are other workers and employees who won’t follow CDC guidelines (as has been shown at the demonstrations by folks insisting normal business operation be resumed) and cases may well increase as a result. 

These are important points that Council Members, and all of our local agencies should be communicating to business owners and the greater community who needs your guidance on this. Why spend valuable Council time creating a letter seeking to get the Governor to let Whatcom County speed ahead before we are prepared? COVID-19 may, indeed, be with us for quite awhile, and its potential to spread quickly at this point, is far more formidable than that of the flu. Our presently flattened curve isn’t enough, alone, to leave us prepared for a resurgence. We have to have enough people, enough resources, enough education, and enough communication to be able to handle a heavy load of cases should enough people not be willing to stay home and/or observe and provide measures to prevent the spread.

I call on you Council Members to keep working with all local agencies to keep preparing, keep increasing communication levels, and keep helping provide resources so businesses can profit in different and more sustainable ways under the new conditions in which we find ourselves, and so individuals can overcome the unique present challenges to being considerate and caring toward their neighbors, friends, and families.

Sincerely, 

Dena Jensen

Birch Bay, WA


This email was sent to the following addresses:

To: council@co.whatcom.wa.us <council@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Barry Buchanan <bbuchana@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Todd Donovan <tdonovan@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Carol Frazey <cfrazey@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Rud Browne <rbrowne@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Tyler Byrd <tbyrd@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Ben Elenbaas <belenbaa@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Kathy Kershner <kkershne@co.whatcom.wa.us>

Cc: Satpal Sidhu <ssidhu@co.whatcom.wa.us>; Health <health@co.whatcom.wa.us>; ccmail@cob.org <ccmail@cob.org>; mayorsoffice@cob.org <mayorsoffice@cob.org>