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Coronavirus, protests and health care changes: The year 2020 in the Yakima Valley
  • Updated

We have not had a year like this one.

Virtually every aspect of life in Yakima County has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, and you’ll see that reflected in this recap of the year’s biggest local news stories.

The novel coronavirus, first diagnosed in the county in March, has upended medicine, business, education, politics, sports and the arts. It has killed 300 of our neighbors, sickened thousands more, left countless others out of work and threatened the long-term economic outlook for businesses large and small.

Life, of course, has continued amid all of that. COVID is the big story, the story whose tentacles reach into nearly all the others. But it is not the only story. Astria Regional Medical Center closed January, leaving Yakima with only one hospital. That lone hospital, Virginia Mason Memorial, in July announced plans to merge with CHI Franciscan only to scuttle those plans later in the year in favor of separating from the Virginia Mason system and going independent.

The nationwide movements for racial and social justice reached Yakima County as they did many communities, with marches against police brutality and racism serving as the most visible aspects of them. Social justice and pandemic news intersected starkly with a series of spring strikes at local fruit-packing warehouses, where workers protested unsafe close-quarters conditions. And historic wildfires, both locally and throughout the West, darkened our hillsides and skies, burning more than a half-million acres in Washington and all but shutting down outdoor life in the Yakima Valley during a particularly smoke-filled September.

The echoes of 2020 will be heard for decades. Assumptions we had at the beginning of the year — about the social safety net, access to health care and our ability to find common ground when it’s most necessary — were disproved. The world is very different than it was a year ago. This look back at the biggest stories of the year provides a glimpse at how that happened.

1. Coronavirus in Yakima County

On the evening of March 11, officials with the Yakima Health District reported the first two cases of the 2019 novel coronavirus in Yakima County. The first COVID-19 death of a county resident was reported March 23.

Medical experts say Yakima County has seen two distinct waves of COVID-19, with the first peaking in early summer, around late June and early July. The second wave began in November and continues today. It’s a wave they predict will continue to build well into January as a result of expected Christmas and New Year’s gatherings, despite warnings.

Yakima County has already surpassed both peak hospitalization over the duration of the pandemic and the peak average of new cases reached over the summer, said Yakima Health District spokeswoman Lilián Bravo.

As of Dec. 30, there have been 20,748 cases of COVID-19 in Yakima County, and 300 residents have died. A total of 15,166 residents have recovered, according to the health district.

Among those who test positive for COVID-19, about 6% end up hospitalized, Bravo said recently. Between 1.5% and 2% die.

Yakima County’s three hospitals — Virginia Mason Memorial in Yakima, Astria Toppenish and Astria Sunnyside — have not only faced challenges in caring for patients, but staff members have been out for COVID-related reasons.

The community here, despite many who downplayed or dismissed COVID’s alarming reality, came together in numerous ways to fight the spread of the virus and support those most affected by it. Regular people sewed thousands of masks for farm workers and others in need. Restaurants such as The Lab and Meraki Creations provided free meals for seniors. Volunteers and staff worked tirelessly at food banks to feed the hungry.

On Dec. 16, the county saw its first residents vaccinated against the coronavirus, with more vaccines on the way. People will be asked to continue wearing masks and to avoid socializing until vaccines are widely available next year.

— Tammy Ayer and Pat Muir

2. COVID’s impact on jobs and economy

During the first two months of 2020, the economy looked strong in the Yakima Valley. New restaurants and businesses were in the works, and the region was seeing job growth.

That all changed with COVID-19. A statewide stay-at-home order led to the closure of businesses across the Yakima Valley. Many of those businesses were forced to close entirely or drastically scale back operations.

Thousands of people lost their jobs. During the last week of March, some 4,000 residents filed new unemployment claims. In April, the county’s revised unemployment rate was 14.3%, a high figure not seen in Yakima County since the 1990s, when the Asian financial crisis impacted the agriculture industry. The rate declined to 7.7% in November.

Most businesses survived through programs such as the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which provided forgivable loans for businesses and local business who used them to maintain payrolls during the pandemic, and state and local business grants primarily funded by money from the CARES Act, the federal coronavirus relief package.

During the summer and early fall months, business activity ramped up as some COVID-19 restrictions were lifted in Yakima County. Unemployment decreased over the next few months.

But that momentum sputtered again in November when a new wave of restrictions went into effect in response to rising COVID-19 cases.

It remains to be seen how many businesses will be able to endure this latest round of restrictions. Several businesses, namely restaurants and gyms that were the hardest hit by restrictions, have already closed for good. A new Gold’s Gym at the former Albertsons space on 40th and Tieton Drive was shelved.

Businesses will be counting on financial aid from both the state and the federal government through a new relief package to help them get through this round of restrictions.

— Mai Hoang

3. COVID’s impact on schools and social activities

COVID-19 took a toll on schools, events, sports, churches and nearly every social activity in the Yakima Valley in 2020.

In mid-March, the state mandated that public and private schools statewide close, beginning March 17. That included events, school buildings and sports. Many Yakima County schools didn’t make it that far. In a domino effect Sunday night, march 15, all 15 local school districts announced there would be no school Monday morning. Staff and students transitioned to online learning.

Later in the month, a stay-at-home order was issued by Gov. Jay Inslee. Everyone was asked to stay home unless conducting essential work or getting groceries, in short. Even religious ceremonies moved online.

Soon, Inslee announced school buildings would remain closed for the remainder of the school year.

Religious ceremonies resumed with limitations. By mid-summer, it was thought that other things might move back to normal as cases in Yakima and the rest of the state stabilized. When the new school year arrived, private schools reopened, but public schools and post-secondary programs remained almost entirely remote. Most sports remained on hold.

Eventually, some public school students were moved back to classrooms. But much was still in the balance when school let out for winter break.

— Janelle Retka

4. Fruit packing warehouse strikes

On May 7, more than 50 workers walked off the job at Allan Bros. in Naches over concerns regarding the fruit packer’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Workers from five other packing plants — Columbia Reach Pack, Frosty Packing and Hansen Fruit in Yakima and Monson Fruit and Matson Fruit in Selah — started strikes and protests of their own in the days that followed and continued for several weeks. Farmworker advocates said the protests were the most direct action seen from agricultural workers in several decades.

Cases in Yakima County were quickly starting to rise, and many of those infected with COVID-19 were working in close quarters packing fruit throughout the Yakima Valley. Workers voiced concerns about a lack of masks and other personal protective equipment and a lack of enforcement of safety protocols by supervisors.

The protests garnered regional and nationwide attention, prompting Gov. Jay Inslee to implement additional restrictions and regulations related to agricultural workers. Workers negotiated agreements with employers that included additional training, temporary or permanent raises or bonuses for workers.

Agricultural companies said they worked to abide by necessary safety measures. Employers said a shortage of available personal protective equipment at the start of the pandemic and other logistical issues made it challenging. Industry officials also questioned whether the protests were a means for farmworker advocates and activists to push for unionization and pay raises. The Washington State Tree Fruit Association also retained a Seattle public relations firm to create a coordinated industry response to national and regional publications.

While the protests ended in June, workers have continued their activism, though in a much quieter fashion. Workers at Allan Bros. have worked to unionize. Meanwhile, representatives from Familias Unidas por la Justica, a Burlington based union who supposed workers during protests this spring and summer, have continued to push advocate for policy changes regarding farmworkers.

— Mai Hoang

5. Black Lives Matter protests and changes

Yakima area residents joined in nationwide protests following the death of George Floyd in May. Floyd, who was Black, died after an encounter with white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, who kept Floyd pinned to pavement with his knee on Floyd’s neck for almost nine minutes during an arrest.

Blacks Lives Matter protests continued for days and weeks in Yakima and Selah, with residents peacefully calling for an end to police brutality and systemic racism.

The movement prompted calls for police reform nationwide. In September, Yakima Police Chief Matt Murray announced additional de-escalation training for all officers and that he’d be making more information about use of force publicly available. He also said the department’s police officers would no longer be allowed to use carotid controls, except in life-threatening condition,s starting Feb. 1, 2021.

Murray, in presenting the amended policy to City Council members, said the changes were not a direct result of Floyd’s death but rather of a comprehensive review of the department’s use-of-force policy.

“I don’t want people to think that these are feel-good things we did to satisfy discontent,” he said. “We’ve done a lot of work, and I think we’re going to be better for it.”

Meanwhile, controversy continued in the city of Selah into the fall and winter. Protests included marches and sign-holding demonstrations, as well as people drawing on streets and sidewalks with chalk.

The chalk art became controversial when city administration directed staff to repeatedly remove the sketches. The city saw the chalk art as “graffiti” on public streets; the artists saw the chalk as protected free speech.

In December, the Selah Alliance for Equality and several Selah residents filed a lawsuit in federal court against Selah for allegedly censoring free speech and violating the First Amendment.

Selah also is facing two additional lawsuits, alleging city staff violated the state’s Open Public Meetings Act by taking a vote to remove the chalk art in a closed-door executive session and the state’s Open Public Records Act by withholding relevant public records documents related to that vote.

— Lex Talamo

6. Regional hospital closes

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the region’s health care industry was shaken when Astria Health announced Jan. 8 that it would close Astria Regional Medical Center, leading to the loss of jobs for nearly 500 employees and medical providers. The organization said it no longer had the financial wherewithal to operate the hospital and it was becoming a hindrance as it sought to exit Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

The Washington State Nurses Association filed a motion with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court to prevent the hospital’s closure. Ultimately Judge Whitman L. Holt ruled Astria Health had exhibited sound business judgment in deciding to close the hospital.

The hospital’s closure left the city of Yakima with just one hospital — Virginia Mason Memorial — that was already feeling the strain of a busy flu season at the time. Astria Regional’s closure also meant that patients would now have to travel to the Tri-Cities and Seattle for key services, such as open-heart surgery. Astria continues to operate hospitals in Sunnyside and Toppenish.

In April, the state expressed interest in using the hospital for its COVID-19 response, but ultimately went in a different direction.

In November, a local investment group expressed interest in purchasing the hospital and the neighboring medical office building for $20 million. The deal was a notable boost for Astria Health — attorney Sam Maizel said the funds would be enough to cover 20% of its secured debt. The deal closed in December. The investment group plans use the buildings for health care.

— Mai Hoang

7. Memorial ‘unwinds’ from Virginia Mason

The announcement in July that Seattle-based Virginia Mason and CHI Franciscan, a Catholic health system based in Tacoma, were considering a merger was big news around Washington state and beyond.

Mergers are common these days as health care systems seek the best ways to maximize revenue and the most efficient ways to deliver care. Founded in 1950, the former Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital affiliated with Virginia Mason Health System on Jan. 1, 2016. It is the only hospital in the city of Yakima after the closure of Astria Regional Medical Center in January 2020.

After concern from retired doctors and others in the community, Virginia Mason Memorial board members in late October voted to “unwind” from the Virginia Mason affiliation and transition to an independent, local health care system. They expected then the process of removing affiliation would take one to three months.

Carole Peet, CEO and president of Virginia Mason Memorial, has said it will revert to its former name, Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital.

Officials said Memorial will continue its relationship with Virginia Mason for referrals and other health-related matters but will officially be independent.

— Tammy Ayer

8. Wildfires

The fire season started in earnest in Yakima in mid-August when a fast-moving blaze on Ahtanum Ridge threatened homes and prompted evacuations.

Two weeks later, the Evans Canyon Fire proved to be a harbinger of one of Washington’s most devastating wildfire seasons on record.

The fast-growing Evans Canyon blaze burned more than 75,000 acres from its start north of Naches on Aug. 31, destroyed six homes and six other buildings, and forced the evacuation of around 900 residences. Fire torched timber and grassland almost all the way to the Yakima River, closing State Route 821 through the river canyon.

While firefighters mopped up the flames of what to that point was the state’s largest fire, hot, windy and dry conditions turned Washington into a tinderbox on both sides of the Cascades. Labor Day brought 58 wildfires that burned nearly 300,000 acres in 24 hours, including a blaze that destroyed an estimated 70% of homes the small eastern Washington town of Malden.

A week after Labor Day, the Cold Creek fire started next to U.S. Highway 12 near White Pass, shutting down the road for nearly seven days. It burned 564 acres as firefighters successfully protected nearby structures.

Overall, the Department of Natural Resources responded to almost 1,900 wildfires that burned more than 532,000 acres, or 830 square miles, and killed a 1-year-old boy. Five disastrous days in September burned more acres than any other year in recorded history except for 2015.

All those fires and others in Oregon and California brought immense amounts of smoke to Washington, causing an unprecedented week of unhealthy and hazardous air in the Yakima Valley in mid-September. Health officials recommended everyone stay inside.

— Luke Thompson

Inslee extends virus restrictions until Jan. 11
  • Updated

SEATTLE — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday extended restrictions on businesses and social gatherings because of the COVID-19 pandemic for another week.

Inslee said the restrictions are now due to expire Jan. 11.

“This choice is not easy,” Inslee, a Democrat, said via Twitter. “Next week I’ll be announcing more details about our new plan to safely reopen.”

In mid-November, Inslee, in response to rising case numbers, announced a host of businesses must close their indoor services, including fitness facilities and gyms, bowling centers, movie theaters, museums, zoos and aquariums. Retail stores — including grocery stores — were told to limit their indoor capacity to 25%.

Also, indoor social gatherings with people from more than one household are prohibited unless attendees have either quarantined for 14 days before the gathering or tested negative for COVID-19 and quarantined for seven days. There’s no enforcement mechanism for indoor get-togethers.

Republican Sen. John Braun of Centralia, the newly-elected state Senate minority leader, questioned extending restrictions for another week in a statement Wednesday.

“The governor says we will get through this together, but he is arbitrarily, without apparent regard for science or data, leaving behind our restaurants and gyms,” Braun said. “Why punish small businesses that have gone to great expense, at a time when they can least afford it, to comply with safety measures by crushing any hope they have of saving their livelihoods?”

In other pandemic news, the Washington State Department of Corrections has started vaccinating some high-risk inmates and prison employees, putting them among the first recipients to receive the vaccine in the state.

Employees and inmates in a central Washington prison’s assisted-living ward, and medical staff and long-term care inmates in a Spokane County prison with the system’s largest current outbreak have been inoculated, The Seattle Times reported Tuesday.

Department officials said no general population inmates are receiving the vaccine at this time.

Questions about how to prioritize who receives the vaccine and when have been discussed across the country. Some have argued inmates are in cramped conditions that mimic those in long-term care facilities, but have been left off vaccine priority recommendations.

Washington has prioritized high-risk health care workers and long-term care residents and staff for its initial vaccination phase. Tara Lee, a spokesperson for Inslee’s office, said certain prisoners and prison workers fit into those groups, but prisons “are not being prioritized.”

Staff and inmates in the assisted-living ward at Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Franklin County have received the vaccine, department officials said. Vaccinations have also begun at the Spokane County Airway Heights Corrections Center, the site of the prison system’s largest outbreak.

It is unclear how many people have been vaccinated, or how many are scheduled for the current or future vaccination phases.


This story has been corrected to say that state Sen. John Braun lives in Centralia.