Verlynn Best had planned to take a vacation day on Friday.
The Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce CEO ended up spending a good portion of the day fielding phone calls from small business owners expressing concern and confusion over Gov. Jay Inslee’s coronavirus reopening plan.
Best shares many of their concerns.
“This plan is going to do nothing to help small businesses,” she said.
Yakima Valley officials and business owners expressed concerns with Inslee’s plan Friday. While most stated they want residents to remain safe, they also question Inslee’s process in determining what should and shouldn’t open.
Many local businesses have been closed since mid-March in an effort to limit the spread of COVID-19. Inslee presented a four-phase plan for reopening during a news conference Friday. A one-sheet summary outlines which businesses and activities would be allowed to resume under each of the four phases.
Bob Romero, executive director of the Yakima Family YMCA, said the plan needs more clarification on what is allowed when. Since the organization operates several different programs and offerings, including fitness classes, an aquatic center and summer day camps, it’s unclear where the organization would fall in the different phases.
Without that information, Romero said it’s challenging to inform members what the organization would be doing in the next several months. The organization, however, has been working on how facilities would operate under various social distance parameters.
“Are there activities that would fit in phase two? Or is everything we do going to be more of a Phase 3 or Phase 4?” Romero said.
Ken Schlieman wouldn’t be able to reopen his gym and studio, Premier Fitness Studio, until mid-June at the earliest, when businesses in Phase 3 are expected to reopen.
Schlieman said the plan doesn’t account for the different model his business has compared to larger gyms. The studio’s fitness classes have no more than 10 people and could easily reduce class sizes to five to meet the gathering restrictions for Phase 2.
“We have enough square footage to space things apart,” he said. “We know who is coming, and we are in charge of what they’re doing.”
Schlieman said he and several other gym and fitness business owners met with Yakima County Commissioner Vicki Baker this week to provide feedback on reopening.
“The majority of them were just like us and could easily adapt to small groups and do (business) in a safe way,” he said.
Inslee said 10 counties, based on their low case counts, can reopen businesses sooner than other counties if they meet certain criteria. Kittitas County is one of the 10, but Yakima County is not. All Kittitas County businesses have been asked to prepare COVID-19 safety plans.
Kittitas County had just 14 confirmed cases, and hasn’t had a new case in 20 days. Yakima County has had 1,293 cases, and is averaging 35 new cases a day, health officials said earlier this week.
City and counties can have stricter rules than the state based on public needs and local conditions, Inslee said. Local jurisdictions can’t be less strict than the state.
Baker and Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers have been meeting with small businesses throughout the county to work on reopening plans.
In a written statement, Baker wrote that they believe they can present a plan that would allow businesses here to open in a safe but expedited manner. She said the county does not have the authority to overrule the state’s order but wants to find ways for businesses to reopen within reason.
“We feel strongly that demonstrating a safe path to move the economy forward with thoughtful local-level plans could help businesses move to the ‘allowed’ classification,” she wrote.
Best, the Yakima Chamber CEO, said that small business owners are frustrated and confused over why big box stores have been able to continue, and they had to close.
They don’t understand why they can’t implement the same social distancing and sanitation measures as these larger businesses and reopen, she said.
“It’s a burning question,” she said. “I get it every day.”
Best also believes the timeline — which currently has the state entering Phase 4 roughly in early July — is far too long and will ultimately lead to many businesses closing.
Best said she plans to meet with local officials and to advocate for a strategy that would allow businesses, within reason, to open sooner.
“I don’t want to say, ‘Yes, let’s get out there and get the virus,’” she said. “It’s going to be around for a while. How do we learn to live with it and survive it and have small businesses survive? That’s the question.”