Kennewick business owner called up for Air National Guard duty

It seems like a lifetime ago, but it’s only been a few months since Yvette and Brad Sanders bought the Tri-Cities FastSigns franchise.

The January deal had everything it needed to ensure the local business would continue and grow. The couple already had run a business and the sellers were staying on to help with the transition.

The transition has been anything but ordinary, Brad Sanders said.

The coronavirus pandemic brought demand for its signs, wraps and banners to a near halt shortly after the sale closed. Then, Gov. Jay Inslee issued the Stay Home, Stay Healthy order in March, limiting nonessential activity to curtail the spread of coronavirus, which causes the deadly COVID-19.

Business didn’t dry up completely. Customers began asking for signs to help with the pandemic.

A Kennewick dentist who closed his practice needed a message guiding patients to emergency care. Businesses deemed nonessential needed “Closed for COVID-19.” Businesses that stayed open asked for floor decals to enforce six-foot social distancing requirements.

While adapting to the new line of business, Sanders, a major in the Washington Air National Guard, was called to active duty to help with the state’s response to the coronavirus emergency.

He is serving at Fairchild Air Force Base near Spokane, working to place airmen in communities that need support to weather the crisis.

The Guard had called 37 airmen to duty by April 6.

In Spokane, the airmen have stepped in to replace older food bank volunteers who have been sidelined by their vulnerability to the virus. Airmen are setting up COVID-19 testing stations in Bremerton and Yakima, and they’re posted in Colville, supporting Stevens County Emergency Management.

Sanders spent 10 years on active duty in the Air Force, deploying to the Middle East five times in his role as a transportation officer. He’s served in the Washington Air National Guard for the past 15 years.

His Air National Guard deployment is for 30 days, but that could change, depending on need. He expects to face a 14-day quarantine or period of self-isolation once he returns home.

He’s proud of the work his team is doing across the state. Business owners, doctors, teachers, lawyers and other citizens have had to step away from their families to help, as they often do during fires, floods, natural disasters and now pandemics.

He’s seen the social media posts that the National Guard is coming for citizens’ guns. He is frustrated by this narrative that distorts the Guard’s mission to help in times of crisis.

“That couldn’t be further from the truth,” Sanders said. “The National Guard is here to help. That’s exactly what our people are doing.”

Members of the Washington Air National Guard sort food at a Second Harvest facility in Spokane. The airmen relieved older volunteers who are sidelined by the coronavirus epidemic. (Courtesy Washington Air National Guard)

The National Guardsman runs the personnel accountability tracking program, which means he places airmen where they’re needed. Air National Guard members who have been laid off from their civilian jobs because of the pandemic are called first since they can deploy the fastest.

“We are trying to get them out there on the front lines first,” he said.

Back in Kennewick, Yvette is running FastSigns along with taking care of their family, serving as a volunteer paramedic and EMT for Benton Fire District 1 and preparing for courses at Columbia Basin College. She runs a dance business as well.

“We’re definitely not feeling the boredom,” Sanders said.

At Fairchild, Sanders tries to squeeze time in for FastSigns in his 13- to 14-hour days.

The business employs eight, including the couple.

So far, it has retained its employees, adapting to social distancing requirements and offering paid time off to those feeling unwell or unsafe.

“We’re committed to keeping them going,” he said.

Sanders is one of millions of small business owners who applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan to help the business survive the indefinite downtown.

The $349 billion program, authorized by the CARES Act, offers forgivable loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration to support payroll and business expenses. Applications quickly overwhelmed lenders and prompted administration officials to consider expanding the pool of money by $250 billion. The move was pending at the time of this report.

Critically, PPP “loans” are forgiven if employees are retained and the borrowers meet other criteria.

Sanders said the emergency SBA programs could be critical to FastSigns’ future.

“Those make it possible to keep the employees on,” he said.

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