Shaun Ehlers ended 2019 on a contented note.
He’d opened a second edition of his small fashion boutique in Columbia Center mall in September.
By year’s end, the Free Culture Clothing stores in downtown Kennewick and at the mall were breaking even.
He knew the first few months of 2020 would be rough. January is always tough on retailers and sales don’t pick up until mid-February, after Valentine’s Day. Everything was on schedule. Except that it wasn’t.
“Covid affected the mall by March,” he said. Stores stayed open but customers stayed away out of fear. Anchor stores closed and so did other tenants. The mall closed.
Washington’s Stay Home, Stay Healthy order sidelined his West Kennewick Avenue location as well.
The bad news piled on. Ehlers applied for an emergency grant from the state but wasn’t successful. His home was damaged in a fire that forced him to move to an apartment.
Naturally an upbeat person, Ehlers struggled. In May, with some prompting, he reopened the downtown store to shopping by appointment, scrubbing the store between visitors and steaming any items tried on but not bought.
Business is off by about 95 percent but seeing people in his downtown store restored his hope that the fashion business he dreamed of since he was a child will survive. But he needs customers.
For that to happen, Benton County needs to move to Phase 2 under the state’s Safe Start program that’s slowly restoring business and other activities halted by the stay-home order.
“Phase 2 is a must-have. Otherwise, I don’t think we will last,” Ehlers said.
Benton and Franklin counties submitted nearly identical applications seeking state approval to move to Phase 2 the week of June 9. The state paused the applications because of "concerning" rates of infection in the Mid-Columbia.
There’s no guarantee when the state will move the area to the next phase.
Both counties have infection rates that are above the state’s goals for Phase 2. Benton and Franklin, with above-average rates of new infections, were two of only six counties still in the most restrictive first phase.
They’re banking on the community’s willingness to wear face masks to help convince health officials to sign off on the applications.
The two counties hoped to show they have a plan in place to control the spread that includes a ready health care system, testing, contact tracing and more. But the argument hinges on Tri-Citians agreeing to wear face masks.
Amy Person, the Benton-Franklin health officer, ordered residents to wear masks when they can’t keep a six-foot distance in public and other settings. The order is not being enforced, but it is neither a request nor a recommendation.
“It is an order. We expect people to comply with it. It is not a request,” Rick Dawson, spokesman for the Benton-Franklin Health District, told business and political leaders who joined the Tri-City Development Council (TRIDEC) during a June 5 Zoom meeting to discuss winning strategies to move out of the restrictive Phase 1.
The Tri-City Regional Chamber of Commerce is boosting the message through its Tri-Cities Open and Safe Coalition and a donation of 10,000 masks announced June 10 by UniFirst Corp., a national uniform and workwear company. The chamber is asking area residents to donate PPE between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. June 15-16 at the chamber office, 7130 W. Grandridge Blvd. in Kennewick.
It will distribute them to small businesses during drive-thru events from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. June 22-23.
The PPE campaign is part of an effort encouraging local small businesses to take a pledge to follow Covid-19 measures.
Local officials are united in supporting reopening business in a safe manner.
“We realize how critical it is to get it open,” said Karl Dye, TRIDEC president. Dye said TRIDEC supports the Phase 2 applications.
“What we’re talking about is creating more positivity around masks,” he said. “Wearing masks is just the best procedure.”
The health district says masks curb the spread of the virus that causes Covid-19.
On June 8, Franklin County had an infection rate of 195.4 newly diagnosed cases per 100,000 residents in the prior two weeks. Benton County’s rate was 92. The state average was 45.3.
The statewide goal is fewer than 25 new infections per 100,000 residents in the prior two weeks.
In Benton County, 16 percent of Covid-19 tests came back positive. For Franklin County, it was 34 percent.
Benton and Franklin counties failed on other metrics too, such as having a disproportionate number of hospital beads occupied by patients being treated for Covid-19.
Dawson said the number of cases in the region will go higher, but the infection rates will fall as testing increases. Half of new infections involved people age 40 or younger who were apparently exposed to the virus that causes Covid-19 at work or gatherings, he said.
“The overwhelming desire to be together has led to noncompliance with the governor’s directive,” he said. Avoiding gatherings is still the safest policy, he added.
If the state rejects the Phase 2 applications, the counties have another path out of the Phase 1 restrictions under Safe Start. They can apply for Phase 1.5, which would allow some activities to resume.
Still, they are hopeful that Phase 2 will arrive soon.
The Benton County Commission recognizes the community is suffering and will release a video touting mask use to promote the cause, said Jerrod MacPherson, Benton County administrator. It is requiring employees to wear masks if they’re not alone in an office.
Getting residents on board with Person’s order is a safe balance the county can achieve, MacPherson said.
Keith Johnson, Franklin County’s administrator, said the emphasis is on reopening businesses and other activities where it is possible to prevent the spread of Covid-19.
“We feel we ought to be able to get those places open as quickly as possible,” he said.
Johnson said Franklin County intends to ask its employees to follow the mask order as well, though he said it has not been an easy discussion. There have been “internal battles” in the courthouse about wearing masks, he said.
Editor's note: This story was updated June 17 to indicate the state placed Phase 2 applications from Benton and Franklin counties on hold because of high local infection rates.
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