While announcing his plans for reopening Washington, Gov. Jay Inslee had some words for Yakima County, where the coronavirus infection rate is one of the worst in the western United States.

“I just want to level with the people in Yakima because they are my former neighbors and I care a lot about them,” Inslee said during a Friday news conference. “We are only going to stop this from getting into the broader neighborhoods of Yakima if we all sort of get behind this wagon and push.

"If we don’t wear face masks, if we don’t socially distance, if we sort of shrug this off as a plot, not a real threat to our family, we are going to be in a dangerous position in a beautiful community.”

He said a state “strike team” visited the county to work with Yakima Health District officials to see what steps can be taken to reduce the coronavirus infection rate, and noted that new hygiene and safety rules have been implement for the agriculture industry.

As the governor announced he would not extend his March 23 “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, which expires Sunday, he said 26 of the state's 39 counties have been able to move into the second phase of his “Safe Start” program and will be able to advance to the third phase if certain criteria are met.

For counties to move forward, they must demonstrate that new coronavirus cases are at a rate of 25 per 100,000 people or less over a two-week period, at least 80 percent of local hospital beds are open, and there are mechanisms in place to do testing and contact tracing for those infected.

For the two-week period ending May 28, Yakima County’s rate of new coronavirus cases was 501.8, about 20 times above the limit set by the state for advancing to phase 2.

Yakima County reported 122 new COVID-19 cases Friday, its third straight day with more than 100.

Dr. Teresa Everson, Yakima County’s health officer, said earlier that Yakima County was also not doing well in terms of risk to vulnerable populations and health care readiness while doing slightly better with testing and contact tracing.

She attributed Yakima County’s high coronavirus numbers to a combination of a lack of mask use, outbreaks at long-term care centers, household transmission and groups gathering in defiance of Inslee’s stay-home orders.

About 400 people — few of whom observed social distancing or wore masks — gathered at the Yakima Speedway last weekend to protest Inslee’s stay-home orders, and a similar event was conducted in Selah the next day.

Inslee said a survey conducted by Yakima Health District and Virginia Mason Memorial hospital finding 35% mask use at local stores was concerning.

“We owe ourselves more,” Inslee said.

As part of Inslee’s “Safe Start” plan, people are strongly encouraged to wear cloth masks anytime they go out in public. However, workers will be required to wear masks starting June 8 if they interact with others on the job, and employers must provide the needed materials.

Retailers will be required to post signs encouraging mask use.

Science has shown that wearing masks significantly reduces the spread of the coronavirus, Inslee said. The Yakima County Board of Health is considering a declaration that people should wear masks in public places.

Inslee said he is working with Yakima Mayor Patricia Byers to encourage greater mask use in the city.

Help for small businesses

The county is committing $2.8 million in coronavirus relief funds for local businesses through the federal CARES Act, Yakima County commissioners announced Friday.

The money is in addition to $187,000 in federal Community Development Block Grant funds targeted to “microbusinesses” and low-income business owners, according to a release from the commission.

Commissioner Vicki Baker also announced the creation of a community coalition to help small businesses and churches develop plans for reopening.

Among others, the task force will be made up of members from the Yakima Chamber of Commerce, the Yakima County Development Association and the Central Washington Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Baker said in a county commission news release.

“This will be coming from peers, not Labor and Industries,” Baker said.

Reach Donald W. Meyers at dmeyers@yakimaherald.com or on Twitter: donaldwmeyers, or https://www.facebook.com/donaldwmeyersjournalist.