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Parks get ready for spring

WENATCHEE — Spring is in the air and people are starting to venture outside to visit parks and participate in activities.

But local governments are still enforcing COVID-19 restrictions, so parks and recreation departments are trying to balance those regulations while providing services, said Dave Erickson, city of Wenatchee Parks and Recreation director.

It hasn’t been made any easier with regularly changing directives coming from Gov. Jay Inslee — a situation Erickson described as “trying to hit a moving target.”

“February as an example, we moved to Phase 2; and at that point, what we were hearing from the state level was, ‘Yep, we’re going to be in Phase 2; there’s no plans for Phase 3 until at least fall,’” he said.

Then, the governor’s office made changes to the Phase 2 restrictions on March 1 and again on March 9, he said. Finally, Inslee announced Wednesday that all counties would be moving to Phase 3 on March 22.

“So, all of the programs that we were on the verge of having set out in our summer rec guide, we’re going to hold off on those again until we see what the new guidelines are,” Erickson said.

The parks department will have the same activities as in years past, but its implementation might look a little bit different, he said. They will have the spring day camp, as well as reopen the swimming pool and splash pad with restrictions, social distancing and masking where applicable.

It was important to open the pool because “we wanted to make sure that we had the opportunities for swim lessons,” Erickson said. “So we can continue to have swim safety instruction, you know; that’s kind of a critical component.”

The agency is also concerned that the counties could regress to Phase 2, Erickson said. In November, the department created the indoor playground in Pybus Public Market, but had to shut down after a week when Chelan County went back a phase in the state’s re-opening plan.

One change between Phase 2 and Phase 3 is large picnic shelters at Lincoln, Washington and Rotary parks may reopen to reservations, he said

Eastmont Metro Parks and Recreation is going through similar changes, said Charles Brown, parks and recreation director. The Eastmont Aquatic Center will restart family swims on Sunday with up to six people from the same household per section of the pool, he said. Reservations are required.

Eastmont parks remained open through COVID-19 the restrictions, Brown said. The parks department at first tried to block off the equipment, but people ignored their efforts and it became a waste of money to try, he said.

“People cut down the caution tape and moved signs, so we just never put them up or we didn’t run any programs; we didn’t advertise anything,” he said. “We opened the pump track this year and had it all fenced off and people just climbed the fence.”

Three bills on homelessness that are still alive in state Legislature

OLYMPIA — As state lawmakers work the 10th week of the legislative session, several bills addressing the construction of homeless shelters and permanent housing have passed out of the House of Representatives, while attempts to increase funding for affordable housing and rental assistance remain in financial committees.

Here’s a roundup of which bills related to homelessness could still be passed.

1. Homeless shelters, affordable housing and zoning

People who work in homeless response often say that the number one obstacle to building more affordable housing is finding a place to put it.

Whether it’s emergency shelters, safe parking sites, sanctioned tent encampments, or permanent supportive housing, attempts to build housing for people experiencing homelessness frequently run into opposition from neighbors, local businesses, and other community groups, delaying or even deferring projects entirely.

A series of bills proposed by Democrats aim to reduce regulatory obstacles to creating affordable housing and emergency shelters.

HB 1220, sponsored by Rep. Strom Peterson (D-Edmonds), would prevent cities from using zoning to stop homeless shelters or permanent supportive housing from being built in areas zoned for multifamily housing, commercial, or mixed-use zones where short-term rentals are allowed.

It would not require that shelters or supportive housing be built anywhere specific, just prevent them from being indiscriminately banned in zoning districts intended for housing. Other provisions in the bill prod cities to address low-income housing in their comprehensive plans, but stop short of stipulating any specific actions.

Peterson’s bill, which passed the House 57-39 and is scheduled for a public hearing in the Senate Housing and Local Government Committee on March 18, is one of several that addresses the tensions between municipalities trying to build shelters or housing for individuals experiencing homelessness and the cities and neighborhoods where those facilities are sited.

2. Using local sales tax revenue to acquire hotels for housing

King County plans to expand their use of hotels as housing, announcing plans in January to purchase as many as a dozen hotels and turn them into permanent supportive housing.

HB 1070 would facilitate the process of purchasing hotels by clarifying that municipalities can use local sales tax revenue to purchase housing facilities (such as hotels) and operate them for affordable housing or behavioral health purposes. Sponsored by Rep. Cindy Ryu (D-Shoreline), the bill would require counties considering acquiring property to consult with the cities first, and reserve 15% of units for individuals living in or near that city. It passed the House 56-42.

3. Funding for ongoing rental assistance and tenant legal aid

HB 1277, sponsored by Rep. Timm Ormsby (D-Spokane), would create a new funding source to keep people housed by adding a $100 document filing fee to real estate transactions. County auditors already assess $83 in fees to fund various homeless housing programs.

The additional surcharge would go toward establishing a new rent assistance program managed by the Department of Commerce and designed to outlast the pandemic, serving as a security net for renters who temporarily fall behind on payments and risk losing their homes.

Funding also could support project-based vouchers for nonprofit housing providers, foreclosure prevention, and legal aid for tenants facing eviction.

SB 5160, a separate bill that passed the Senate last week, would guarantee tenants facing eviction the right to an attorney, which would cost an estimated $11.5 million per year, according to a fiscal analysis.

Ormsby’s bill has sat in the House Appropriations Committee for over a month now, but is scheduled for a public hearing this week.

U.S. defends response to child migrant surge at southwest border

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas defended the U.S. response to a surge of unaccompanied children seeking to enter the United States at the southwest border on Tuesday, saying the region was on track to see more people trying to enter than any time in the last 20 years.

The government is creating a joint processing center to transfer the children, as young as 6 years old, promptly into the custody of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and is trying to find additional shelters for them, Mayorkas said in a statement.

“The situation we are currently facing at the southwest border is a difficult one. We are tackling it,” he said.

President Joe Biden’s administration has been racing to speed up the processing of hundreds of youths under 18 who are crossing the southern border alone every day from Central American countries and Mexico.

Officials have warned “the border is not open” and said they are sending back adults and families who have tried to cross it illegally since Biden took office promising to reverse some of predecessor Donald Trump’s hard-line policies.

Administration officials have acknowledged their messaging is being countered by people smugglers and human traffickers who profit from the dangerous illegal journeys.

“The smugglers’ message is very pervasive; they prey on people and they prey on their hope and they tell them things that simply aren’t true,” Roberta Jackson, a White House adviser on immigration, said in an interview with CNN on Tuesday. “But we are fighting back.”

Nearly 4,300 unaccompanied children were being held by Border Patrol officials as of Sunday, according to an agency official who requested anonymity. By law, the children should be transferred out of Customs and Border Protection facilities to HHS-run shelters within 72 hours.

Mayorkas acknowledged that Border Patrol facilities are crowded and that the 72-hour time frame for their transfer to HHS is not always met.

In the short term, the federal government is setting up additional facilities in Texas and Arizona to shelter unaccompanied children and families, and is working with Mexico to increase its capacity to receive expelled families, he said.

Authorities are creating joint processing centers so children can be transferred immediately from Border Patrol to HHS, which is getting additional facilities to house the children until they are placed with families or sponsors, Mayorkas said.

They also will work with Mexico and international groups to expand an online platform that children can access to register for entry into the U. S. without taking the dangerous trip, he said.

Longer-term solutions include developing a formal refugee program that includes processing centers in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The Biden administration will soon issue a new regulation and other asylum reforms, including shortening the time it takes to adjudicate an asylum claim from years to months, Mayorkas said.

While poverty, violence and corruption in the Northern Triangle and Mexico have led people to seek a better life in the United States for years, Mayorkas said the coronavirus pandemic and two hurricanes have made the situation worse.

Republicans in Congress on Monday stepped up attacks on Biden over a surge of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border, but were criticized in turn by Democrats for their own immigration record, as well as Trump’s policies.

“The prior administration completely dismantled the asylum system. The system was gutted, facilities were closed, and they cruelly expelled young children into the hands of traffickers,” Mayorkas said on Tuesday. “We have had to rebuild the entire system.”

Apple Blossom Festival to happen in June

WENATCHEE — The Apple Blossom Festival, which was canceled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, is coming back in 2021 with a festival planned later in the year than normal, June 3-13.

“The Apple Blossom Festival has always been a sign of new beginnings and our community is so ready for a new beginning and a celebration, and we are excited to give it to them,” said Festival Administrator, Darci Christoferson, via Tuesday press release.

Christoferson said, after meeting with the Chelan Douglas Health District, she felt it would be safe to march on with a June festival. She said the food vendors, arts and craft vendors, entertainers and volunteers are ready to do their thing.

The Chelan Douglas Health District will provide feedback to the planning committee on updated phase guidance for planning purposes, said Chelan Douglas Health District Administrator Luke Davies.

“Limited Apple Blossom events and activities will be contingent to our two-county recovery phase status and guidance provided by the Department of Health and the Governor’s office at the time of the events,” Davies said.

Davies said festival attendees will need to wear a mask, wash their hands, social distance and get the COVID-19 vaccine in order to open up and have events like Apple Blossom.

“Please do your part to prevent the spread of COVID-19, so that we can bring back these important traditions,” he said.

Costco Art 4 Kidz applications are online now and will be displayed virtually throughout the Festival Dates.

For all updates and information go to www.appleblossom.org or go to the Apple Blossom App sponsored by Crunch Pak.

Planned Apple Blossom events include:

  • May 13: Washington Trust Golf Tournament at Highland Golf Course
  • June 3: Food Fair, Beer Garden and Entertainment at Memorial Park
  • June 4-13: Funtastic Shows Carnival
  • June 6: Pepsi Cola Youth Day at Memorial Park
  • June 10: Community and All Service Club Luncheon at Wenatchee Convention Center
  • June 11-13: Arts & Crafts Fair at Memorial Park
  • June 12: Stemilt & Keyes Fibre Community Parade

Despite low rate of infection, health officials worry about COVID-19 variants

EAST WENATCHEE — Chelan and Douglas counties are in a race between vaccinations and COVID-19 variants.

The rate of COVID-19 infection is low right now, about 100 cases per 100,000 people, and the percentage of COVID-19 tests coming back positive is at 4%, down from around 15% two months ago, Chelan-Douglas Health Officer Dr. Malcolm Butler said during a Chelan-Douglas Board of Health meeting on Monday.

The number of variant cases of COVID-19 in Washington is climbing and the state is looking at a potential fourth wave of infection in April, Butler said.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Washington has had the following number of variant cases:

  • B.1.17 (British) — 99
  • P.1 (Brazil) — 1
  • B.1.351 (South Africa) — 5

The rate of infection in both counties does look good, though, Butler said. Hospitalizations are down with only eight people at local health centers and one person in an intensive care unit on a ventilator.

One interesting trend is that for the first time during the pandemic, Latino residents in Chelan County don’t appear to be carrying a disproportionate percentage of COVID-19 infections, Butler said. The percentage of Latino people infected with COVID-19 matches the percentage of Latino individuals in the community.

It is not the same in Douglas County, where Hispanics continue to carry a disproportionate percentage of infections, he said.

Vaccination efforts are going well, but the supply from the federal government remains inconsistent, said Luke Davies, Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator.

In Chelan County, about 28% of Chelan residents have had their first dose, 19% have had their second, said Joyous Van Meter, regional epidemiologist. In Douglas County, 21% of residents have had their first dose and 15% have received their second dose.

The health district is getting ready to focus on vaccinating H-2A and other agricultural workers starting Wednesday, as well as anyone working in essential businesses, Davies said.

South Africa COVID-19 variant detected in Eastern Washington

KENNEWICK — The first South African COVID-19 variant has been detected in Eastern Washington, with two cases identified in residents of Yakima County.

The vaccines approved for use in the United States may be less effective against the variant originally detected in South Africa than the strain that has been circulating in Eastern Washington for the past year.

The Yakima Health District said that the two people known to be infected with the South Africa variant appeared to have acquired it within the county rather than from traveling and bringing it back to the area.

The first variant detected in Eastern Washington was the United Kingdom Variant, which was identified earlier this month in a sample collected in Benton County.

The UK Variant is known to be more contagious than the typical COVID strain in the state.

However, there is no conclusive evidence that it is more deadly, said Dr. Amy Person, health officer for Tri-Cities area, when the discovery was announced last week.

The vaccines being used in the United States provide good protection against the UK Variant, according to the Washington state Department of Health.

Although vaccines may be less effective against the South Africa Variant detected in Yakima County, vaccines still provide protection against severe illness and death, according to the Yakima Health District.

Additional studies on COVID vaccines and the South Africa variant are underway.

As of March 11, when the latest Washington state report on COVID variants was released, just five cases of the South Africa Variant, or the B.1.351 Variant, had been detected in the state. The other cases were in King County.

The 99 known cases of the UK, or B.1.1.7, Variant detected in the state were in Benton, Clark, Grays Harbor, Island, King, Pierce, Skagit, Snohomish and Whatcom counties.

There also has been a single case of the variant first detected in Brazil in Washington state. It was found in King County.

Washington state has been genotyping a little less than 3% of the test samples that are positive from people who have been tested for COVID-19 across the state, which is a higher percentage than most states. The state’s goal is to increase that to 5%.

Data is incomplete on where testing was done, but the most genotyping appears to be on samples collected in King, Yakima, Snohomish, Pierce, Whatcom and Spokane counties for the first two months of this year.

“Remember, now that we know there are variants in our county, we have to be even more vigilant in protecting ourselves and others to control this pandemic,” said Dr. Larry Jecha, the interim public health officer for Yakima County.

Because COVID-19 variants in Washington state may spread more easily, people need to be vigilant about wearing well-fitting face masks even in small social circles, keeping gatherings outside when possible, staying home when sick and getting a COVID vaccine as soon as eligible for one.