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Douglas County jury trials move to NCW Fairgrounds

WATERVILLE — On the wall beside the metal detector are plaques listing the past 30 recipients of the NCW Fair Commissioner Awards. Sixty-plus chairs are spaced apart in the roughly 10,000-square-foot room. A wagon wheel hangs from above.

If this sounds vaguely like the Community Hall at the NCW Fairgrounds in Waterville that’s because it is. But for the near-term future, it’s also Douglas County Superior Court. For trials, that is.

“We’ve got a lot of people who are waiting for their trials and it’s time to get moving again,” Judge Brian Huber said last week. “Because I think we can do so safely.”

The temporary move allows trials to proceed while adhering to COVID-19 guidelines.

Day-to-day hearings will still be hosted out of the Douglas County Courthouse, but trials, which require large pools of people to gather for jury selection, plus a range of people participating and observing the trial, will be held at the Community Hall.

There are microphones for the judge, attorneys and witnesses, speakers for the audience to hear and a pair of big-screen monitors to display evidence or documents. The chairs in the jury box and in the courtroom are spaced for social distancing.

Huber got the idea from Okanogan County Superior Court where he was recently a visiting judge. They held trials in the Agri-Plex at Okanogan County Fairgrounds.

“By handling that jury trial in Okanogan County, I was able to learn a whole lot of things that helped streamline the process for Douglas County Superior Courts and the alternate location courtroom,” Huber said.

Superior Court on Thursday began its first trial since the pandemic began last March. A defendant was accused of breaking into M&R Market in Bridgeport then selling stolen cigarettes. He was found guilty of five of the six charges.

Prior the start of the trial, Deputy prosecutor N. Smith Hagopian said he was satisfied with the expansive courtroom. His only concern with the setup was whether his soft voice could be heard in a big room.

“I want to make sure my voice carries so that the jury hears me and doesn’t have to hear it twice,” Hagopian said.

Haines’ attorney, Justin Titus, had similar worries.

“I think being able to see and hear everything adequately in an expanded space is just different from what we’re used to,” Titus said. “And so it presents some challenges. We’ve tried to compensate for it.”

He added, “As far as things I’ve seen around the state, it’s pretty good.”

Criminal and civil cases have been delayed over the past year due to COVID-19 restrictions and that’s created a backlog of cases in need of resolution.

“It’s going to be something of an adventure,” Huber said. “But we are going to get through our backlog in one way or another.”

First priority goes to defendants who are being held in custody, he said. Under COVID-19 guidelines, that typically means those charged with serious crimes. Many defendants not deemed an immediate threat to others were released or given low bail amounts to guard against the spread of the coronavirus within jails.

Huber estimated there are roughly 40 defendants in the Douglas County Superior Court system being held at the Okanogan County Jail awaiting trial in his courtroom.

While this could be the first time the Community Hall has hosted a trial, it isn’t the first time Superior Court has done business within its walls. The building hosted hearings one summer in the early 2000s while the courthouse was under construction.

It was hot enough that the court relaxed its rule requiring attorneys and court officials to wear jackets.

“People were sweating like crazy,” Huber said. At the time he was an attorney representing a client. “It was just so uncomfortable.”

His present-day solution: using COVID-relief funds to replace the building’s air conditioning system.

“And the beautiful thing is, it’s going to get warm here in 2021 and we’re going to be blazing trails in the heat of the summer,” Huber said. “And we’re going to be in there, our jurors are going to be cool and comfortable.”

Health officials concerned about COVID-19 case counts

WENATCHEE — Health officials are uncertain about vaccine supply in the next couple months as COVID-19 rates increase in Chelan and Douglas counties and more people become eligible today for COVID-19 vaccines.

Provided photo 

Luke Davies

Chelan-Douglas Health District administrator

“We’re seeing an increase in [COVID-19 cases] in our younger populations throughout the area, specifically with youth events and with bars and restaurants,” Chelan-Douglas Health District Administrator Luke Davies said Tuesday. “And we are concerned that it is going to push us back a phase.”

As of Monday, Chelan County had a 218.9 COVID-19 rate per 100,000 over the last 14 days while Douglas County had 109 new COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days. The numbers threaten a return to Phase 2 for Chelan and Douglas counties under the state’s “Healthy Washington” reopening plan.

The two counties have until April 12 to see COVID-19 numbers drop far enough to remain in Phase 3. Davies asked the community to continue to wear masks as it remains a useful tool in combating the virus.

“Also, we’re seeing that there is a bit of an interruption in terms of the supply chain from the federal government,” he said. “There’s a difference between what they say is going to become available and what they’re forecasting for us. We’re hoping to get more clarity from them in the next couple of weeks.”

With the state’s plan to have every adult eligible for the vaccine by May 1, the health district’s plans hinge on getting the allocation it has been promised.

“It’s our plan by May 1st to have multiple sites open in Chelan and Douglas counties that will be able to do higher volume,” Davies said. “If we do have the vaccine arriving in May as the federal government is promising, we will be moving through those populations much quicker.”

The Town Toyota Center mass vaccination site administered more than 3,400 vaccines last week bringing the total amount of vaccines administered by the state-run site to 34,456 as of March 27, according to the state Department of Health.

And on Wednesday, everyone who qualifies under Phase 1B in tiers three and four are eligible for COVID-19 vaccines. They include:

People 16 years and older with two or more underlying conditions. Go here to see some examples of some underlying conditions: wwrld.us/condition

  • Everyone 60 years and older
  • Workers in restaurants, manufacturing and construction
  • People working or living in correctional facilities, group homes for people with disabilities and other congregate settings

The state’s eligibility tool, Phase Finder, will also no longer be necessary to schedule appointments starting March 31.

Davies said that it has become increasingly difficult for the state Department of Health to update the 32 different languages available in Phase Finder as more people become eligible for vaccines.

“We’re still asking that individuals who do not have comorbidities (other serious health condition) or are fairly young and healthy go ahead and wait just a little bit that way we can reduce the amount of people who are at risk of going to the hospital and/or getting very sick if they contract COVID,” Davies said.

Find information on where and how to schedule an appointment at wwrld.us/help.

As the boys of summer return, U.S. economy holds its breath

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Texas Rangers plan to welcome a capacity crowd of about 40,000 for their Major League Baseball home opener on April 5. In Seattle, meanwhile, attendance at the Mariners’ first game of the season on Thursday will be capped at 9,000, roughly 18% of capacity.

In the country’s fitful battle for economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic, a lot may ride on whether, come September, attendance for America’s pastime looks more like the Rangers than the Mariners.

With nearly a third of U.S. adults having received at least one dose of a COVID-19 vaccine and more states and cities relaxing restrictions that have become a staple of life over the last year, progress toward a full re-engagement in public life remains a haphazard affair.

How the MLB regular season unfolds as 30 mostly U.S.-based teams play 2,430 games in stadiums beginning on Thursday, and what that reveals about the public’s willingness to gather with cheering, shouting strangers, will serve as one proxy for whether America races or crawls back towards normal life.

Each team is coordinating with local authorities to set attendance rules, with ticket sales typically limited to 30% or less of stadium capacity at the start of the season and seating confined to socially-distanced pods. Spectators will be required to wear masks, and touchless entry and concessions will be in use extensively.

Under those constraints, Opening Day looks to be a sellout, said Noah Garden, MLB’s chief revenue officer.

“There are tickets here and there. There are not many left. The demand as you can imagine is very high,” with people itching for in-person experiences again, Garden said.

But compared with a typical Opening Day, Thursday will see at most around 146,000 fans in the 15 stadiums hosting games, less than a quarter of the 635,000-seat combined capacity of those venues. In 2019, about 604,000 people attended the first games of the regular season.

The real test is what happens next, with implications for the U.S. job market, the broader economy, and perhaps even the future prospects of American downtowns.

While COVID-19 cases are rising again, the country is on pace for roughly two-thirds of U.S. adults to be at least partially inoculated by June 1, giving some hope that, over time, people will be able to safely move around again in close proximity.

The economy depends on it. Of all the fallout from the pandemic, the blow to the leisure and hospitality industry was the most damaging, and its recovery is critical to regaining the roughly 9 million jobs still lost due to the health crisis. If baseball, theme parks, concerts and theaters can stage a successful reopening — and if the coronavirus is controlled — it will translate quickly into jobs.

MLB’s teams collectively lost about $4 billion in annual revenue in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season, according to MLB officials, though some other estimates peg the overall loss at $6 billion.

Stadium closures also eviscerated seasonal work, with summertime positions at sports venues last year about 50,000 below the number in 2019, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.

The secondary losses to restaurants, bars and hotels was also massive. Many were closed anyway due to social distancing restrictions, but proving the world can get back to normal will be especially important for cities, particularly ones like St. Louis where live sports have an outsized influence.

The hometown Cardinals, for example, are among baseball’s attendance leaders, but perhaps a third of the crowd each night comes from outside the Missouri-Illinois region, said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis’ Olin Business School.

After a drive from Tennessee or Kentucky, fans “are spending one or two nights at a hotel, eating at restaurants,” Rishe said. “None of that happened last year.”

MLB is hoping the success of the COVID-19 vaccination program and broader progress against the pandemic will allow a stepwise climb back to full stadium capacity later in the season — boosting businesses around the cities as well as in the baseball parks themselves.

But the U.S. experience of and response to the pandemic has been patchwork, with some states imposing stricter rules than others. How consumers react in different cities as stadium restrictions are eased may offer an important signal about whether the economic growth expected in the United States this year will be uniformly felt across the country.

The average game attendance in 2019 was 28,660, about 68% of capacity at the typical MLB stadium.

It won’t just be fans needing to get comfortable with the idea of mass-attendance events again. Staff have to be protected as crowd density increases, and venues retooled for cashless, touchless operations, a trend in motion before the pandemic.

Yet come the fall, when the baseball season goes into fever pitch, there’s hope it will have all eased back into place.

“We think that as it gets closer to summer, and summer progresses, we will welcome more and more back,” MLB’s Garden said.

Eligible for vaccine? Go to vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov

NCW — People seeking the COVID-19 vaccine should use a different state website for their search as of today.

People who believe they are eligible to get vaccinated can go to vaccinelocator.doh.wa.gov, according to a state Department of Health news release.

The state is removing the phase finder tool to make the process easier and get more people vaccinated as quickly as possible, the release states. The vaccine locator page is available in 30 languages and will be available in seven more by the end of April.

The state will continue to use phases for making people eligible to get vaccinated, according to the release.

The state today is expanding to Phase 1B Tier 3 and 4, meaning the following people can get vaccinated:

  • Anyone over age 16 with two more serious illnesses
  • Staff and volunteers in congregate settings
  • Restaurant workers
  • Anyone age 60 and older
  • Construction workers
  • Manufacturing workers