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Walla Walla County to apply for early reopening

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Walla Walla County Commissioner office

Walla Walla County intends to request an early entry into Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s reopening plan, commissioners decided in a special meeting Friday.

Phase 2 is tentatively scheduled for all counties to begin June 1 provided infection benchmarks are met. It would allow restaurants to operate at 50% capacity, salons/barbers, in-store retail purchases with restrictions, pet grooming, previously deemed nonessential manufacturing and other services under health guidelines.

Columbia and Umatilla counties on either side of Walla Walla have received approval for the next phases of economic reopening.

Through Inslee’s “Safe Start” approach, counties with a population fewer than 75,000 people and no new cases of COVID-19 in the past three weeks can apply for a variance to move to Phase 2 before other parts of the state. The applications are approved or denied by the secretary of the Department of Health.

Walla Walla County has not had three weeks without a new case. However, it had several days with zero as case-count growth decreased, Commissioner Todd Kimball said Friday.

“I think it’s appropriate that we move forward with this,” he said.

Kimball said he is concerned community members will leave Walla Walla County for services in neighboring communities.

“That just exposes us and them to a higher degree,” Kimball said. “It makes tracing a whole lot harder, not to mention the businesses that have been shut down and shuttered for eight or nine weeks now and there is a lot of pent up demand.”

No patients were hospitalized with COVID-19 as of Friday. With capacity at both Providence St. Mary Medical Center and its Southgate campus, he believes capacity could serve a surge in cases if that occurred.

“I think they have the capacity for some increase,” said Dr. Larry Jecha, public health officer for Walla Walla and Columbia counties. “We may see an increase with this, we may not, we don’t really know.”

Jecha said he thinks the case count is “on the right track,” and it is time to ask for a variance.

“It’s my wish that we rapidly but thoughtfully request a variance from the governor to start phase two in a phased manner,” added Commissioner Greg Tompkins.

Consideration for approval on early entry into Phase 2 requires counties to prove to the state Department of Health they have adequate local hospital bed capacity and personal protective equipment supplies.

Commissioners have not submitted a variance request yet. They will meet Monday with public health officials and the necessary documents to apply.

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Chloe LeValley can be reached at chloelevalley@wwub.com or 509-526-8326.

Chloe LeValley covers the cities of Walla Walla and College Place as well as agriculture and the environment in the Walla Walla Valley. She is a graduate of San Francisco State University and joined the Union-Bulletin's team in October 2019.