Gov. Jay Inslee met with community and business leaders at the Yakima Valley College campus Tuesday about what he called two “very intense desires.”

One is the community’s desire to resume business activity in the Yakima Valley. The other is the need to halt a continued increase of COVID-19 cases in Yakima County, one that Inslee said could lead to a “disaster” if not addressed soon.

“We know simultaneously we have to do this in a way that will beat this virus down rather than let this virus beat us up,” Inslee said at an outdoor news conference. “Unless we change some of the things we’re doing, this virus is on a rampage in this beautiful Valley.”

Inslee, a former Selah resident, said he saw signs of progress, such as the increased use of masks and the commitment by local leaders to encourage residents to follow public health measures.

But more will have to be done to address the desires of the community to reopen and resume business and social activity and to prevent the continued spread of COVID-19, he said.

“We simply have to do both. Just one won’t be successful,“ he said in an outdoor news conference Tuesday.

Health and the economy

For weeks, concerns have been mounting regarding both the public and economic health of Yakima County.

Yakima County has continued to see drastic increases in new COVID-19 cases, making the region a disconcerting outlier from much of the state. The county had nearly 600 new cases from Friday to Tuesday, according to Yakima Health District figures.

Community and business leaders have maintained there should be just as much concern over the potential collapse of small businesses across the region due to prolonged closures. Yakima County Commissioner Vicki Baker has advocated for a plan that would address not only the public health concerns but provide a way out for business owners losing hope.

“We have lots of people on the edge of losing everything,” Baker said in a phone interview Tuesday, noting that women and people of color own many of the small businesses here.

Yakima County is one of six counties still in Phase 1 of the state’s four-stage reopening plan. Hair salons and restaurant dining rooms remain closed, unlike Phase 2 counties.

Inslee acknowledged the concern from the business community.

“We have so many small business people who are just busting out to get their businesses started after such a prolonged closure,” he said.

Finding solutions

Still, Inslee said, resuming economic activity can’t be done without addressing the widespread infection of COVID-19 in the county. He took note that the percentage of hospitalizations by Yakima County COVID-19 patients is more than eight times higher than King County, the site of the first major COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S. earlier this year. That figure was based on a data point on the state's risk assessment dashboard that states the percentage of hospital beds occupied by patients with a confirmed COVID-19 infection. 

The county’s infection rate is 28 times higher than in King County.

Part of the effort will involve increased testing locally, including in congregated settings, such as fruit packing houses and manufacturing plants. That plan may include requirements for businesses to allow regular testing at those businesses or encouraging early testing to identify and prevent outbreaks.

The testing effort could be tied to an educational campaign to encourage workers to isolate if they test positive for COVID-19 and to inform them of resources, such as paid sick leave.

Inslee said the state has about 1,000 state employees trained and ready to do contact tracing in the Yakima Valley, which involves identifying individuals who may have had contact with those infected with COVID-19 and encouraging them to self-quarantine to prevent further infection.

Inslee took note of Yakima County’s transmission number, which looks at how contagious a disease is. Yakima County’s transmission number is at 2, meaning that each person with COVID-19 will on average infect at least two others. State public health officials are aiming for an infection rate below 1.

Masks key

Inslee said Yakima Valley residents’ commitment to wear masks and continuing social distancing is crucial to reduce COVID-19 spread. He said while mask-wearing has increased, thanks in part to a campaign from the Yakima Health District, more has to be done.

“Frankly it’s going to come down to this: Can we get enough people in the Yakima Valley to really commit to wearing masks?” Inslee said. “Can we get enough people in the Yakima Valley to social distance so they’re not having a barbecue with 20 people with no masks in the afternoon? Can we get enough businesses to commit to doing the testing, so we don’t have these outbreaks of 100 people in one congregate community?”

Inslee made it clear that the focus for now is to encourage residents to wear masks, rather than threaten punishment.

Baker said she felt Inslee took to heart her concerns over the health of local business owners. She also noted that Inslee offered to match the county’s resources for a media campaign to encourage mask-wearing and other measures to open the economy.

Baker said she urged Inslee to resume business activity right away, but she also wants Inslee to feel assured that Yakima County business and community leaders would implement sufficient safety measures when businesses reopen. Part of that effort includes a strike team to work with local businesses to make sure they were correctly implementing social distancing and other measures.

“I think he expressed a common desire to find a pathway forward — in balancing health and our economy,” she said. “It was encouraging.”

Editor's note: The story was edited to provide additional information on data related to COVID-19 hospitalizations. 

Reach Mai Hoang at maihoang@yakimaherald.com or Twitter @maiphoang