by Colleen Smith
and Mandi Johnson
Sounder and Journal editors
At the end of the year, the Islands’ Sounder takes a look at the biggest headlines of the past 12 months. Watch for part two in next week’s edition.
We chose the top stories from our most-read online articles and events we feel impacted our communities.
1. The COVID-19 pandemic in the islands
It would not be a recap of 2020 without mentioning the biggest global news story of the year — COVID-19.
China first reported a cluster of pneumonia cases in the city of Wuhan, the capital of the Hubei Province, on Dec. 31, 2019, according to the New England Journal of Medicine, and by Jan. 7, 2020, the country’s authorities confirmed the cluster was associated with a novel coronavirus.
Though the first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus in the United States was in a patient located just 60 miles away from the islands in Everett, Washington, reported on Jan. 20, the first case in San Juan County wasn’t reported for another two months. Since then, a total of 78 county residents were diagnosed with COVID-19 as of Dec. 28.
Between mid-August and mid-October, the county’s confirmed COVID-19 cases did not increase. The majority of COVID cases identified in San Juan County have occurred since Oct. 14, with 46 people being diagnosed in the past two and a half months.
On Feb. 29, Gov. Jay Inslee proclaimed a state of emergency for all counties in the state, placing limits on gatherings, businesses, leisure activities and travel.
San Juan County Council declared a state of emergency on March 13, then, on March 25, Public Health Officer Dr. Frank James, M.D., signed an order closing all playgrounds, transient lodging, ports and marinas in the islands, limiting them to “essential business” service only. On June 3, James opened transient lodging to 50 percent and then lifted the restrictions entirely on Sept. 10.
Around the time that San Juan County introduced its own restrictions, the state laid out a four-phase plan to return life to pre-COVID normality, loosening regulations over time. San Juan County made it as far as from Phase One — a near-total lockdown of services — to Phase Two before phases were paused due to a second wave of infection.
At midnight on May 15, San Juan County’s face-covering mandate went into effect, more than a month prior to Inslee issued a statewide order on June 26. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had suggested Americans voluntarily wear cloth masks in the beginning of April, but earlier in the pandemic, the CDC was discouraging it because of low amounts of personal protective equipment available for health care workers on the frontlines.
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. In September, the county was granted an additional $343,000 from the Department of Commerce and $343,000 from the Department of Health.
While most of the CARES Act funding went in filling gaps in the county’s budget which experienced a $1.061 million shortfall due to COVID. The county earmarked a total of $157,000 of the money it received to be granted to community businesses.
The Town of Friday Harbor and the islands’ airports also received funding from the federal government via the state. The town designated $30,000 of its $108,900 it received to business grants as well. Additionally, the Port of Friday Harbor received $1.055 million; Orcas, $1.041 million; Lopez, $30,000; and Friday Harbor Sea Plane Base, $20,000.
2. Local election brings changes
Christine Minney and Cindy Wolf won the November 2020 election to represent San Juan and Orcas, respectively, on the San Juan County Council for the next four years. Their terms begin in January 2021.
For San Juan County Council District 1, Minney beat Ryan Palmateer with a total of 5,992 votes, 51.61 percent.
For San Juan County Council District 2, Wolf beat incumbent Rick Hughes with 6,201, 52.39 percent. Hughes previously held the position for two terms.
Voters also approved commissioners for the Charter Review: Dave Anderson, Bill Appel, Kyle Davies, David Dehlendorf, Paul Dossett, Patty Garcia, Richard Grout, Maureen See, Thomas Starr, Sharon Abreu, Janet Brownell, Tony P. Ghazel, Kevin Ranker, Olivia Roseberry, Anne Marie Shanks, Jane Fuller, Liz Lafferty and Robert A. O’Connell.
3. April’s Grove completed
For many, the completion of April’s Grove could not have come at a better time.
The first nine households moved into OPAL Community Land Trust’s newest housing project at the beginning of September. Over the next three months, 10 to 15 families moved in each month until all 45 townhomes were occupied. The project was the first new affordable rental housing of significant size in San Juan County in nearly 30 years. Planning for April’s Grove began in June 2015. Thanks to the voters of San Juan County who adopted a Real Estate Excise Tax in November 2018 and a legacy contribution from Bob Henigson, the construction of April’s Grove began in May of 2019.
The total cost of the project was $15.5 million with support as follows: $3.4 million in donations and private grants, including $450,000 from the Orcas Island Community Foundation; $4.4 million in Federal, State and Local government grants and deferred loans, including $1.9 million in grants awarded or pending from San Juan County voters and taxpayers; $5.5 million in Federal Low Income Housing Tax Credits; and $2.2 million in a mortgage loan from Washington Federal Bank.
4. Island Hospital to operate one Orcas clinic
Beginning March 2021, Island Hospital will operate a single clinic providing primary, same day and after-hours services on Orcas Island.
Island Hospital responded to Orcas Island Health Care District’s Request for Proposal in May, which identified the need for a partner that was willing to establish a single clinic in the district-owned facility, and one that was aligned with the vision to create more of a community-based model.
While this is not the first time Island Hospital has provided care on Orcas, the timing was right for a renewed partnership. Island Hospital has operated a clinic on Orcas over the years, and the most recent contract ended when UW Medicine took over in the summer of 2017. At that time, a public hospital district did not exist on Orcas and the community relied on philanthropy to cover gaps in funding. The instability of the privately funded financial model was recognized by voters as being unsustainable, and that led to a successful campaign to adopt a PHD in April 2018.
5. Hospital districts listen to concerns over future of HNW
In late October, the future of Hospice of the Northwest was in peril.
For more than 30 years, San Juan County residents in the last stages of their lives have turned to the public agency, which is owned by Skagit Regional Health Care District 1 and United General District 304. The two districts were considering selling it to Bristol Hospice, a for-profit subsidiary of Webster Equity Partners, a Massachusetts-based private equity firm.
HNW has been serving Skagit, Island, San Juan and Snohomish Counties since 1989, providing access to nursing, medical, social and spiritual professionals.
Employees of HNW and San Juan County hospice volunteers and residents voiced strong opposition to the sale, asserting the impending sale could result in substantial changes to coverage for island residents.
On Dec. 18, the boards of the health care districts voted to discontinue further consideration of a potential purchase agreement for Hospice of the Northwest.