Officials call for massive closures across the country as health care systems brace for more coronavirus patients

click to enlarge Washington Gov. Jay Inslee. - YOUNG KWAK PHOTO
Young Kwak photo
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee.

"All of us have to recognize for the next several weeks, normal is not in our game plan," Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said this week, as he framed his most drastic measures to combat coronavirus yet.

Following steps taken by other states over the weekend, and advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention not to hold gatherings over 50 people, Inslee restricted gatherings and shuttered nearly all food and beverage establishments starting at midnight, Tuesday, March 17, with the closures set to last until at least the end of the month.

Inslee asked all people over 60 to stay home at all costs, and said the measures were meant to save lives and severely slow the spread of novel coronavirus COVID-19.

"This is bigger than all of us, and I am fully confident that Washingtonians will rise to this challenge to get back to a normal state of our life as soon as humanly possible," Inslee said during a Seattle news conference Monday.

Inslee's emergency order closed many food and beverage locations, including bars, taverns, restaurants, coffee shops, food courts, ice cream and doughnut shops, and alcohol tasting rooms, with the exception that take-out orders and drive-thrus could continue operating.

Grocery stores, pharmacies and banks are exempt from the measures.

Other shops impacted by the closures included hair and nail salons, tattoo parlors, museums, theaters, event spaces, gyms, art galleries, bowling alleys and more. Retailers were asked to ensure adequate cleaning and social distancing within their premises.

Many Inland Northwest restaurants expect to offer take-out, but some closed down indefinitely.

The U.S. Small Business Administration is offering low-interest disaster loans to affected businesses, at an interest rate of 3.75 percent for small businesses and 2.75 percent for nonprofits. Affected workers who are temporarily laid off can apply for unemployment through the state's Employment Security Department. (SAMANTHA WOHLFEIL)

SCHOOLS

The closure of nearly all public gathering spaces came shortly after the announcement last week that schools statewide would be closing for six weeks.

Spokane Public Schools were open Monday, March 16, for a last day of transition as families and students planned for the closure, lasting through at least April 24.

Starting Thursday, March 19, all students in the district will be eligible to pick up breakfast and lunch daily (the two will be picked up together) between 11 am and 1 pm at 16 different schools: Arlington, Balboa, Finch, Garfield, Hutton, Lidgerwood, Lincoln Heights, Longfellow, Moran Prairie, Mullan Road, Ridgeview, Roosevelt, Shaw, Rogers, Shadle and Ferris. Parents can visit the one that's most convenient to get those meals.

Child care in schools was expected to be provided for the children of first responders and medical workers, though the district hadn't yet solidified those plans either. There will likely be at least 10 sites, with a maximum of 25 students each to maximize social distancing, the district noted in a letter to parents.

Meanwhile, Coeur d'Alene schools were closed March 16 through at least April 6. That district planned to make meals available to students starting March 18, with pickup sites to be announced to parents. (SW)

HEALTH CARE

Officials for the largest health care providers in Spokane held a press conference Monday to share their plans to significantly shift to online-only medical care as the best first option.

Rather than have patients continue coming in for checkups, Kaiser Permanente announced that by Wednesday, March 18, its staff would be offering virtual appointments 24/7 by phone, text or a secure email system attached to patients' medical charts. If it's determined during that virtual visit that a patient needs to be seen in person, only then would they be invited to come to the Kaiser Riverfront campus. The pharmacy remains open, and medications can be mailed to patients.

Additionally, MultiCare and Providence were both limiting visitors to the hospitals. MultiCare is specifically limiting elective surgeries that can be safely delayed, in order to preserve the masks, face shields and other personal protective equipment that's in short supply nationwide and necessary for those caring for COVID-19 patients. CHAS health clinics were strictly limiting dental appointments to also save face masks for doctor's visits, and patients with respiratory issues were being directed to separate waiting rooms. (SW)

PREPAREDNESS

Other Spokane County officials called for a calm response from the public, with Spokane County Commissioner Al French noting during a joint press conference with the city on Monday that people should continue grocery shopping at normal rates and not stock up, as that's causing stocking issues for items like toilet paper and other necessities.

At the conference, officials with Spokane County and the cities of Spokane and Spokane Valley announced they were signing emergency declarations. Airway Heights, Cheney, Deer Park, Liberty Lake, Medical Lake, Millwood and Rockwood planned to follow suit. Together with law enforcement, they opened the Emergency Operations Center to coordinate the community's response to COVID-19.

Avista has announced it will not be shutting off service to people who fall behind on their electricity and gas payments right now. Spokane has likewise suspended late fees and won't be shutting off water for those who fall behind on water/sewer/garbage until further notice, though customers would still be responsible for paying their bills. Water customers can call 311 to make repayment arrangements.

"Today, we are helping to ensure that our citizens will have access to clean and safe water for drinking, hand washing and keeping their families safe," Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward says in a news release. "Our lives have become very different in the last few days, and at the city, we recognize that our families may face financial hardships as a result of the changes being implemented to slow the spread of this disease." (SW)

EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT

Back in October, in the last three months of Mayor David Condon's administration, the city of Spokane decided to make a big change: They'd leave the Greater Spokane Emergency Management system to launch their own city-run emergency management system.

The coronavirus was just such an emergency. On Monday, as the mayor delivered an emergency declaration, the Spokane City Council approved $151,800 to hire an emergency management director.

"It's something that we had intended to do and I think the position was accelerated because of the COVID virus," Spokane City Councilwoman Candace Mumm says. The council was supportive of creating the city's own emergency management department last year, she says.

"We felt that the city was large enough that we need to have our own office to manage that," Mumm says.

For now, however, much of the city's emergency management response duties have fallen to Fire Chief Brian Schaeffer.

"Like many of our employees, I have had to take on dual roles," Schaeffer says. "I'm serving as an incident commander for the city's response to COVID-19."

That response, he says, includes creating a system to coordinate with the county, provide timely and complete information to the community, mitigate the spread of the disease, establish child care for the local workforce, and provide sheltering with enough space to prevent the virus from proliferating in the homeless community.

"We have been through wind storm, ice storm, and fire storm," Mumm says. "We know that this region is resilient, but needs to prepare." (DANIEL WALTERS)

JAIL & COURTS

The Spokane County Jail expanded its screening of inmates and staff, ensuring that no one who presents symptoms would be allowed into the building. Suspects who haven't been booked will be sent to the hospital for evaluation if showing symptoms, while staff members would be told to go home for 72 hours before returning to work.

Various city and county courts also announced they'd be stopping many normal operations.

In Spokane County District Court, which handles misdemeanor criminal cases and matters like domestic violence protection orders, judges won't be issuing bench warrants for people who fail to appear for "non-priority" hearings, while hearings in traffic violation cases that are contested or in mitigation will only proceed if they can be done remotely, per an emergency order. Criminal cases involving a defendant held in the jail will proceed as scheduled, including bench trials. Protection order hearings will also continue.

Similar action is being taken in Spokane Municipal Court, which also handles misdemeanors and minor infractions. Community Court, the innovative model that connects defendants cited with nonviolent misdemeanors with services instead of booking them into jail, is suspending hearings at its downtown location while the branch at the Northeast Community Center is on "hiatus," according to a recent news release.

Spokane County Superior Court is suspending all jury and bench trials in civil and criminal cases, as well as almost all out-of-custody criminal hearings, per an emergency order. (Pretrial hearings in civil cases will be held telephonically or rescheduled.) However, all in-custody proceedings in criminal cases will proceed as scheduled, and the court will continue to hear motions, guilty pleas and sentencing hearings in criminal cases.

"Our goal is to keep people away from the courthouse if we possibly can," Spokane Superior Court Judge Maryann Moreno tells the Inlander. "Everything that is in-custody is basically going to continue to run."

Moreno acknowledges that the changes will lengthen the jail stays of some pretrial defendants who are locked up.

"We're very, very aware of folks that are sitting in jail and the impact that this will have on them," Moreno says. "We are going to try our best not to hold people." (JOSH KELETY) ♦

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About The Authors

Josh Kelety

As a staff writer, Josh covers criminal justice issues and Spokane County government. Previously, he worked as a reporter for Seattle Weekly. Josh grew up in Port Townsend and graduated from the University of Washington. Message him through Signal @ (360) 301-3490.

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, staff writer Daniel Walters is the Inlander's City Hall reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...

Samantha Wohlfeil

Samantha Wohlfeil covers the environment, rural communities and cultural issues for the Inlander. Since joining the paper in 2017, she's reported how the weeks after getting out of prison can be deadly, how some terminally ill Eastern Washington patients have struggled to access lethal medication, and other sensitive...