It’s been almost two months since the last case of COVID-19 was reported in San Juan County bringing the total number of confirmed infections to 15. The San Juan County Council had discussed the status of coronavirus in the county regularly since March, including during its most recent meeting on June 2.
“It is 13 weeks today since we opened EOC back in early March at the fairgrounds. Several weeks prior to that a smaller group of us at Health and Community Services here were working hard to respond and prepare. I wanted to recognize the length of time and energy that has gone into this response and I appreciate the work of our entire team,” San Juan County Environmental Health Manager Kyle Dodd said. “I’m merely here representing them. It’s due to the hard work and dedication and countless hours of our entire team that I am here today being able to share with you the updates and successes.”
San Juan County entered Phase Two of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phased Safe Start reopening plan on May 23. The state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” initiative, which began on March 23, expired at midnight on May 31.
“A lot of the portions of it were retained and renamed the ‘Safe Start, Stay Healthy’ proclamation,” Dodd said.
Beginning on June 1, each county in the state of Washington no longer has an overarching order to stay home, but each county now has the ability to enter the next phase of the plan as science permits. Each county will spend a minimum of three weeks in the phase they are currently in, Dodd noted.
“Thanks to Washingtonians pulling together, we can transition fully to our county-by-county approach to safely reopen,” Inslee said in a May 31 press release. “If we remain diligent and committed to more effective ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we will continue to save lives and open up more businesses while protecting our friends and neighbors.”
In San Juan County, Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James issued an order closing all transient lodging on March 25 to curb the spread of coronavirus. That order was set to expire May 31 but was extended indefinitely.
However, on June 3, James signed a new order allowing transient lodging to resume in San Juan County at 50 percent.
“It is extremely likely there is no coronavirus spreading in our county right now — none,” James said. “The only way it’s going to get here is by being brought here from the outside. … If this were measles we’d all be having a party because it’s gone. Unfortunately, this disease is ensconced in other jurisdictions around us.”
While lodging has been reopened at a limited capacity, face coverings are still required in all island businesses for the foreseeable future.
“[The community is] doing extraordinary work. We have virtually 100 percent compliance,” James said.“The stores have been extraordinary in their willingness to cooperate and provide a mechanism for people ordering or for delivery and even specialized hours. So, our community has really come together and put us in a really favorable position for opening our economy back up.”
June 13 will be three weeks from the date San Juan County entered Phase Two — the minimum amount of time a county is required to be in a phase. The council discussed the possibility of asking the state to allow progression to Phase Three. James supported the council’s desire to proceed noting that things could still go wrong and the response needs to continue to be taken one day at a time.
“We’re like Taiwan. We’ve done things right and hopefully now we will reap the benefits of having done that right and we’ll have the infrastructure in place to step up to challenges that may come to us,” James said.
Funding the county’s response
The Washington State Department of Commerce announced on May 8 that the county would be receiving $943,250 from the federal government’s Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Allowable costs include payroll and benefits expenses of county staff whose work duties have been dedicated to COVID-19 mitigation; county unemployment insurance cost recovery; county telework capability enhancement; and broader communities support in the form of rent and mortgage assistance programs or small business grants, San Juan County Grants Manager and Emergency Operations Center Administrator Tara Anderson told the county council during a May 11 meeting.
“Governor Inslee announced that the state will distribute funding from the federal stimulus package directly to local governments — like ourselves — that did not receive direct distribution under the CARES act. These are formula awards that are based on population,” Anderson said on May 11. “These funds are for use by our local government to cover necessary payroll and unbudgeted expenditures incurred in the response to the public health emergency.”
During the June 3 meeting, County Manager Mike Thomas clarified that the CARES grant is not an amount paid to the county directly to be spent but rather a reimbursement made to the county.
“We don’t get that money, it’s reimbursable,” Thomas said. “So that’s the possible max amount we could receive if we have expenditures that comply with the grant that total that much.”
According to a press release from the Washington State Department of Commerce, the CARES Act funding was intended to be used for paying medical and public health expenses; payroll expenses for public safety, public health, health care, human services, and similar employees whose services are substantially dedicated to mitigating or responding to the emergency; expenses of actions to facilitate compliance with public health measures; expenses associated with the provision of economic support in connection with the emergency; and any other COVID-19-related expenses reasonably necessary to the function of government that satisfy the fund’s eligibility criteria.
“We have a number of expenses that we’ve incurred today and may incur in the future,” Thomas said.
A week prior to that, on May 26, San Juan County Auditor Milene Henley went over the county’s budget. County Council Chairperson Rick Hughes noted the county has a $1.061 shortfall in the budget this year due to COVID.
Henley accounted for $807,000 of the CARES Act in the budget, though she noted it was still a big question mark as to what expenses would be reimbursable. According to the Department of Commerce, the county cannot use the funding to, “fill shortfalls in government revenue to cover expenditures that would not otherwise qualify under the statute.”
Along with the county using the CARES Act to pay for its COVID-19 response related, the county council noted it would like to reserve some of the funds to be used in the community.
“Some of this CARES money should go into a business stabilization fund or an assistance for [providing personal protective equipment], while at the same time, not taking too much of it so that we can still help our fold,” Hughes said. “I think there’s a good balance.”
Hughes proposed a minimum of $650,000 of the CARES funding to stay with the county for expenses.
“It gives us a place holder,” Hughes said.
Milne noted that in the budget she presented that some of the CARES funding, a little over $136,000, had already been accounted for to pay back monies borrowed from the parks and road funds to pay for the county’s COVID response. That left an estimate of $807,000 to go into the current expense fund. A total of $157,000 would remain to be used for the community.
County Councilperson Bill Watson asked who authorized the use of the funds that had already been spent.
“Things happen quickly when you’re running an EOC,” Henley answered. “A lot of it is wages for people from other funds who have been working on the effort.”