All breweries, wineries and bars in Yakima County can offer outdoor seating, and pools can begin holding lap swims, water safety classes and swimming lessons with a five-person limit, health officials announced.
Retail businesses may increase customer capacity from 15 to 25% with the existing 30-minute shopping limit, and organizations may show drive-up outdoor movies, with restrictions. The additional activities were approved by the state as part of Yakima County’s modified Phase 1 plan for reopening.
The changes will take effect Saturday.
Andre Fresco, executive director of the Yakima Health District, mentioned the changes during the Yakima Health District board of health meeting Wednesday morning. Health district officials have been in deliberations with the state Department of Health this week to ease some restrictions created to slow the spread of COVID-19.
“The plan was always for us to advocate for opportunities to move forward,” Fresco said.
Yakima County moved to a modified Phase 1 on July 3, which allowed outdoor restaurant seating, haircuts and more retail activity. After receiving updated information from the state Department of Health, the health district clarified on July 14 that all taprooms, breweries and wineries not considered restaurants prior to the COVID-19 pandemic weren’t allowed to offer outdoor seating.
Since then, some of the county’s most important numbers related to COVID-19 have continued to improve, including more double-digit rather than triple-digit totals of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases and fewer hospitalizations because of it. Surveys have shown more people are wearing face coverings, which help decrease transmission.
“(This) easing of restrictions (is) based on data. Our deliberate efforts in Yakima County are working. Over the last three weeks, we’ve been showing incredible progress,” Fresco said.
Ryan Ibach, chief operating officer of the health district, stressed that while wineries, breweries and bars can reopen to a point by offering outdoor seating, they still need to follow requirements for proper social distancing and facial coverings, along with other state Department of Health guidelines.
People can only sit with members of their own household. Alcohol service at all establishments must end at 10 p.m.
He noted guidelines for drive-in movies, which limit members of the same family to each car. No concessions are allowed.
And while rules for outdoor spiritual gatherings didn’t change, Ibach clarified that such gatherings must take place under and around open-air tents and canopies, meaning structures without walls.
Pools that are regulated will be allowed to offer lap swimming, water safety classes and swim lessons with a supervisor present. Those options are limited to five people or fewer, with proper social distancing.
Considering the limit of five or fewer people at a time, it’s not economically feasible to open Lions Pool or Franklin Pool in Yakima, city Parks and Recreation Manager Ken Wilkinson said in an email.
“Staffing should be OK for opening Lions Pool when a higher number of people are allowed in the pool,” Wilkinson said.
The change was a surprise for the Yakima Family YMCA. Executive Director Bob Romero said the organization had expected to wait until the county got to Phase 2, but hopes to begin offering lap swimming next week.
“To return and train staff as well as meeting all the other state operational COVID protocols will take a little time. We will target the middle of next week for lap swimming,” Romero said. “People should monitor our Facebook page and our website. When we resume swimming, we will do online lap reservations through our website.”
The YMCA can open by appointment with significant capacity and group size restrictions under Phase 2, he added. The capacity increases to 25% under Phase 3.
The changes come as a result of improving metrics, which show that efforts on the part of Yakima County residents, businesses and organizations are making a difference, Fresco said. The percentage of people wearing masks remains high and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 have dropped.
“This is data that shows our community’s actions have been making a difference,” he said.
The updates fall within Yakima County’s “Roadmap to Recovery” for modified Phase 1, so they weren’t affected by the governor’s pause on moving to new phases, and didn’t require formal approval from county commissioners.
“We’re still living well within that modified Phase 1,” Fresco said.
Dr. Teresa Everson, county health officer, said at its peak, the daily number of people hospitalized was “just over 60.” As of Wednesday afternoon, 26 people were hospitalized, with four intubated. And an anticipated spike in COVID-19 cases after the July 4 holiday didn’t happen.
“We are in a ... much different place than we were at the last board meeting” a month ago, Everson said.
More than 40,000 people in Yakima County have been tested for COVID-19; of those, 9,990 tests were conducted by the National Guard as of Tuesday, Ibach said. Thursday is the last day for the National Guard members who are testing in the county as they’re being reassigned, but other organizations have stepped in to help, with the potential for more.
“They’ve done roughly a quarter of the tests that have been done in Yakima County. We appreciate all the work the National Guard has done for us,” Ibach added.
Testing for COVID-19 remains a high priority, and Everson wants even more testing. “We’d like to see more than 1,000 a day,” she said.
Despite the good news shared during the health board meeting, Yakima County remains a hot spot of COVID-19 cases, officials said. Even with a lower overall positivity rate for COVID-19 tests — from 30% at the peak — the state wants that to be at under 2% to move into another phase, Everson said. The positivity rate for the past week was 13.7%, she added.
“This is not a time to relax. We all need to keep masking in public,” she said. “The social distancing is the piece I think is still hard for folks. We need to stay at home as much as possible.
“When you’re sick, get tested quickly if you have any of those symptoms,” she added.
Lex Talamo of the Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this report.
Marie O’Keefe — known as Mama Kris in the homeless community — dipped her head into a sprinkler on South Naches Avenue to cool off Wednesday morning.
It wasn’t even noon yet and temperatures were already in the low 90s.
O’Keefe is part of a homeless community that frequents the wide, grassy median that divides northbound and southbound lanes of Naches Avenue.
More than 25 homeless people were there taking refuge in the shade under trees Wednesday.
In the past, they’d drop into the Yakima Central Library or nearby fast-food restaurants to get out of the heat, use the restroom, charge their phone or connect with Wi-Fi.
But because of the COVID-19 pandemic, those options aren’t available — and it’s only getting hotter.
“Oh yeah, I believe it,” said Rebecca Brownlee. She sat in the shade playing a fishing game on her phone.
Wednesday topped out at 100 degrees. Thursday is expected to reach 106 and a high of 104 is predicted Friday, according to the National Weather Service in Pendleton, Ore.
An excessive heat warning is in effect until 8 p.m. Friday.
Temperatures are expected to come down a bit through the weekend, with highs of 97 on Saturday, 96 on Sunday and 91 Monday, the weather service said.
O’Keefe said a homeless man appeared to have suffered heat exhaustion Tuesday in the downtown area.
“We walked him here, got him some water and he was OK,” she said.
A man who goes by L.J. said he’s used to dealing the elements after being homeless since 1995.
“We do it every year,” he said, sitting in a group of three others under a tree. “I’ve done it so many years, it comes natural.”
But this year is a bit different, said Ken Ohnemus, who was sitting nearby.
“Usually it doesn’t come until August,” he said.
He recalled 1995, when temperatures didn’t drop overnight.
“The coldest it got was 85 and that was at 3 in the morning,” he said.
Mike Kay, who runs Camp Hope— a homeless encampment in east Yakima — said the camp has been doing outreach, taking ice water and sandwiches to people living on the streets.
It’s an attempt to get them to Camp Hope, Kay said.
On Wednesday, Kay, his staff and some residents had three pallets of bottled water from Costco to hand out.
He said he’s finding more people sleeping in cars these days.
“That’s been kind of a surprise,” he said. “We’re finding a lot of people homeless but they’re not sleeping on the streets. They’re sleeping in cars.”
Other service providers and community members also have been providing some outreach by donating ice, water and food, said Danielle Wilson, who was with O’Keefe on Naches Avenue.
“Nurses with Yakima Neighborhood Health have been checking on everyone, bringing water, popsicles,” she said.
Even a pet rescue group has been helping, said Jeremy Edgerly, who for years has been part of Yakima’s homeless community.
“A lot of people here don’t have any place to go,” he said. “We’re just grateful for what we get. Got to thank them for that.”
Neighbors that once shunned the Naches Avenue group have become more accepting, O’Keefe said.
“We’re trying to stay hydrated — people have been dropping water off for us,” she said. Some of the neighbors have been letting us get wet in their sprinklers.”
Holding her phone, Sabrina Simmons stood to make an announcement: “I just met a nice lady on Facebook and she is going to bring food and water down here for us.”
A man on a blanket nearby pulled some ice from a small cooler near O’Keefe and dropped it into a cup.
Those in the homeless community are a family, and help one another, O’Keefe said.
“We buy it,” she said of the ice. “We all pitch in, quarters and stuff. We’re just trying to stay cool, take care of one another. We do all right.”
PROVIDENCE, R.I. — As the world races to find a vaccine and a treatment for COVID-19, there is seemingly no antidote in sight for the burgeoning outbreak of coronavirus conspiracy theories, hoaxes, anti-mask myths and sham cures.
The phenomenon, unfolding largely on social media, escalated this week when President Donald Trump retweeted a false video about an anti-malaria drug being a cure for the virus and it was revealed that Russian intelligence is spreading disinformation about the crisis through English-language websites.
Experts worry the torrent of bad information is dangerously undermining efforts to slow the virus, whose death toll in the U.S. hit 150,000 Wednesday, by far the highest in the world, according to the tally kept by Johns Hopkins University. Over a half-million people have died in the rest of the world.
Hard-hit Florida reported 216 deaths, breaking the single-day record it set a day earlier. Texas confirmed 313 additional deaths, pushing its total to 6,190, while South Carolina’s death toll passed 1,500 this week, more than doubling over the past month. In Georgia, hospitalizations have more than doubled since July 1.
“It is a real challenge in terms of trying to get the message to the public about what they can really do to protect themselves and what the facts are behind the problem,” said Michael Osterholm, head of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy.
He said the fear is that “people are putting themselves in harm’s way because they don’t believe the virus is something they have to deal with.”
Rather than fade away in the face of new evidence, the claims have flourished, fed by mixed messages from officials, transmitted by social media, amplified by leaders like Trump and mutating when confronted with contradictory facts.
“You don’t need masks. There is a cure,” Dr. Stella Immanuel promised in a video that promoted hydroxychloroquine. “You don’t need people to be locked down.”
The truth: Federal regulators last month revoked their authorization of the drug as an emergency treatment amid growing evidence it doesn’t work and can have deadly side effects. Even if it were effective, it wouldn’t negate the need for masks and other measures to contain the outbreak.
None of that stopped Trump, who has repeatedly praised the drug, from retweeting the video. Twitter and Facebook began removing the video Monday for violating policies on COVID-19 misinformation, but it had already been seen more than 20 million times.
Many of the claims in Immanuel’s video are widely disputed by medical experts. She has made even more bizarre pronouncements in the past, saying that cysts, fibroids and some other conditions can be caused by having sex with demons, that McDonald’s and Pokemon promote witchcraft, that alien DNA is used in medical treatments, and that half-human “reptilians” work in the government.
Other baseless theories and hoaxes have alleged that the virus isn’t real or that it’s a bioweapon created by the U.S. or its adversaries. One hoax from the outbreak’s early months claimed new 5G towers were spreading the virus through microwaves. Another popular story held that Microsoft founder Bill Gates plans to use COVID-19 vaccines to implant microchips in all 7 billion people on the planet.
Then there are the political theories — that doctors, journalists and federal officials are conspiring to lie about the threat of the virus to hurt Trump politically.
Social media has amplified the claims and helped believers find each other. The flood of misinformation has posed a challenge for Facebook, Twitter and other platforms, which have found themselves accused of censorship for taking down virus misinformation.
Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was questioned about Immanuel’s video during an often-contentious congressional hearing Wednesday.
“We did take it down because it violates our policies,” Zuckerberg said.
U.S. Rep. David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat leading the hearing, responded by noting that 20 million people saw the video before Facebook acted.
“Doesn’t that suggest that your platform is so big, that even with the right policies in place, you can’t contain deadly content?” Cicilline asked Zuckerberg.
It wasn’t the first video containing misinformation about the virus, and experts say it’s not likely to be the last.
A professionally made 26-minute video that alleges the government’s top infectious-disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, manufactured the virus and shipped it to China was watched more than 8 million times before the platforms took action. The video, titled “Plandemic,” also warned that masks could make you sick — the false claim Facebook cited when it removed the video down from its site.
Judy Mikovits, the discredited doctor behind “Plandemic,” had been set to appear on the show “America This Week” on the Sinclair Broadcast Group. But the company, which operates TV stations in 81 U.S. markets, canned the segment, saying it was “not appropriate” to air.
This week, U.S. government officials speaking on condition of anonymity cited what they said was a clear link between Russian intelligence and websites with stories designed to spread disinformation on the coronavirus in the West. Russian officials rejected the accusations.
Of all the bizarre and myriad claims about the virus, those regarding masks are proving to be among the most stubborn.
New York City resident Carlos Lopez said he wears a mask when required to do so but doesn’t believe it is necessary.
“They’re politicizing it as a tool,” he said. “I think it’s more to try to get Trump to lose. It’s more a scare tactic.”
He is in the minority. A recent AP/NORC poll said 3 in 4 Americans — Democrats and Republicans alike — support a national mask mandate.
Still, mask skeptics are a vocal minority and have come together to create social media pages where many false claims about mask safety are shared. Facebook has removed some of the pages — such as the group Unmasking America!, which had nearly 10,000 members — but others remain.
Early in the pandemic, medical authorities themselves were the source of much confusion regarding masks. In February, officials like the U.S. surgeon general urged Americans not to stockpile masks because they were needed by medical personnel and might not be effective in everyday situations.
Public health officials changed their tune when it became apparent that the virus could spread among people showing no symptoms.
Yet Trump remained reluctant to use a mask, mocked his rival Joe Biden for wearing one and suggested people might be covering their faces just to hurt him politically. He did an abrupt about-face this month, claiming that he had always supported masks — then later retweeted Immanuel’s video against masks.
The mixed signals hurt, Fauci acknowledged in an interview with NPR this month.
“The message early on became confusing,” he said.
Many of the claims around masks allege harmful effects, such as blocked oxygen flow or even a greater chance of infection. The claims have been widely debunked by doctors.
Dr. Maitiu O Tuathail of Ireland grew so concerned about mask misinformation he posted an online video of himself comfortably wearing a mask while measuring his oxygen levels. The video has been viewed more than 20 million times.
“While face masks don’t lower your oxygen levels. COVID definitely does,” he warned.
Yet trusted medical authorities are often being dismissed by those who say requiring people to wear masks is a step toward authoritarianism.
“Unless you make a stand, you will be wearing a mask for the rest of your life,” tweeted Simon Dolan, a British businessman who has sued the government over its COVID-19 restrictions.
Trump’s reluctant, ambivalent and late embrace of masks hasn’t convinced some of his strongest supporters, who have concocted ever more elaborate theories to explain his change of heart. Some say he was actually speaking in code and doesn’t really support masks.
O Tuathail witnessed just how unshakable COVID-19 misinformation can be when, after broadcasting his video, he received emails from people who said he cheated or didn’t wear the mask long enough to feel the negative effects.
That’s not surprising, according to University of Central Florida psychology professor Chrysalis Wright, who studies misinformation. She said conspiracy theory believers often engage in mental gymnastics to make their beliefs conform with reality.
“People only want to hear what they already think they know,” she said.
Associated Press writers Beatrice Dupuy in New York, Eric Tucker in Washington, and Amy Forliti in Minneapolis contributed to this report.
Yakima County reported 70 new cases of COVID-19 Wednesday — its fourth straight day with 81 or fewer.
Earlier in the day, the Yakima Health District eased some restrictions for the county’s modified Phase 1.
But despite the good news, the county’s top health official cautioned that the community remains a national hot spot.
Wednesday’s new cases bring the total to 10,325 since mid-March. Hospitalizations dropped by seven overnight to 26, including four who are intubated.
The death toll grew by one to 194 and 68 more people had recovered from the virus, bring that total to 7,594.
The YHD reported 43 new COVID-19 cases Sunday, followed by 81 Monday and 60 Tuesday.
“I have great appreciation for the community as a whole, for our staff, for community partners, for getting us to a place where we are not just stabilizing our cases but bringing our cases down,” Dr. Teresa Everson, county health officer, said Wednesday during the health district’s weekly briefing. “The goal is less than 63 cases every two weeks.”
Meeting that benchmark, along with others, would allow Yakima County to potentially move to Phase 2 when the state ends the freeze on its “Safe Start” plan.
Everson emphasized that everyone needs to stay vigilant, especially since she doesn’t expect a widely available vaccine until late winter or early spring.
Health District spokesperson Lilian Bravo said new research led the district to modify its guidelines for people returning to work after recovering from COVID-19. The strategy remains symptom-based, meaning those patients should not seek a negative test after testing positive.
Employees seeking to return to work no longer need a note from their doctor, and other guidelines remain the same for those without symptoms.
Those who showed symptoms must wait at least 10 days after symptoms first appeared, but if symptoms persist for longer they can now return 24 hours after their fever has ended, rather than 72 as previously advised.
Everson said the better a mask fits, the less chance of its wearer spreading respiratory droplets carrying COVID-19.
That’s why the N95 masks provide the best protection for others as well as the wearer, since it also filters the air they breathe. The next step down would be a surgical mask, followed by a cloth mask.
“If you think about the effectiveness of a face shield compared to a cloth mask or a surgical mask or an N95 mask, it doesn’t do nearly as good as a job as preventing the person who’s wearing it from potentially getting other folks sick,” Everson said. “There’s no situation where I recommend a face shield over a cloth face mask or a different kind of mask.”