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Hand in Hand Immigration learns to social distance

WENATCHEE — In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Hand in Hand Immigration Services found itself teaching people how to use technology and acting as a source of health information.

For the past three months the immigration non-profit has not been accepting new applications for naturalized citizens, said Norma Gallegos, Hand in Hand Immigration Services program director. It is still renewing people’s green cards. But it hasn’t meant a break for the agency, as it has added a social outreach branch and started taping videos of their citizenship classes for students.

“It is really hard because a lot of students have no access to Facebook, have no access to the internet,” Gallegos said.

During the shutdown, Gallegos has found herself driving to Okanogan County to tape notices on people’s doors about their pending immigration cases, she said.

All of the clients enrolled with the non-profit are legal residents with green cards or other forms of residency, Gallegos said. Hand in Hand is the only immigration agency in North Central Washington that provides civic classes to its clients in both English and Spanish, free of charge.

Most of her students are starting at the age of 50 with her oldest at 98 years old, Gallegos said. She had one student die from COVID-19 before they could receive their citizenship.

During the pandemic, Hand in Hand has started making videos in its office and putting them on Facebook to help clients through the quarantine. Many of her students have never used any form of technology or social media before and so the learning curve has been huge.

But it has helped some families bond during the pandemic as younger generations help their older relatives learn, she said.

“I’ve had people say to me, ‘Oh, I borrow my nephew’s phone every Thursday at 5:30. He’ll set it up for me and I watch you,” Gallegos said.

The agency’s staff has also been reaching out and providing clients with information about how to take care of themselves during the pandemic, she said.

But another side effect of the quarantine is the cost of submitting an application to become a citizen will rise, Gallegos said. The U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) plans to increase fees from $725 to over $1,200, Gallegos said.

The USCIS is a self-supporting branch of the government, which means it uses the fees applicants pay to balance its budget, she said. So it hasn’t been receiving any new applications or any revenue in the past three months.

“I think people were already having an issue paying $725, (and) three trips to Yakima,” Gallegos said. “That can mean for some people three days off work.”

People are driving to Yakima to go to the USCIS offices for various stages of the naturalization process, she said.

At this point in time with the economic downturn, people becoming naturalized citizens is not their top priority, Gallegos said.

“Just calling people, people are already ready to drop their case, because, ‘Oh my gosh I don’t have money for groceries,’” she said.

Inslee: No mask, no service in Yakima County to try to contain coronavirus

YAKIMA — Yakima County residents will have to wear masks if they go out in public, Gov. Jay Inslee announced Saturday.

Inslee is preparing a proclamation that will make mask use mandatory to avert what he described as an “imminent explosion” of coronavirus in the county. It is expected to be ready early this week, according to Inslee spokeswoman Tara Lee.

“It is a legal requirement; it is not just a suggestion,” Inslee told reporters during a Saturday news conference. “It is required if we are going to prevent this disaster from overtaking this beautiful valley.”

Under the order, businesses will have to adopt a “No mask, no service” policy, he said.

He also said the state has trained 1,000 contact tracers and is providing the Yakima Health District with $6.5 million in funding to help with efforts to rein in the county’s growing number of coronavirus cases.

Inslee’s announcement comes after a meeting Tuesday with community leaders and business representatives amid a continuing rise in coronavirus cases in the county. Inslee said Yakima County’s per-capita rate of new cases is the highest in the western United States.

As of Thursday, the rate was almost 700 per 100,000 people over the previous two weeks, according to the state Department of Health. That is about 28 times higher than what is required to move to the next phase of the “Safe Start” reopening program.

By comparison, 55.4 people per 100,000 tested positive statewide during the same time period.

Friday also saw Yakima County reach its second-highest daily number of coronavirus cases, with 208 new cases reported, according to the Yakima Health District.

The Yakima Health District said Friday that the county’s three hospitals had exceeded staffing capacity. Virginia Mason Memorial had no intensive care or non-intensive care beds available Thursday night.

Dr. Tanny Davenport, head of quality and safety at Memorial, said 22 people were transferred from the hospital in the past two days, both people with COVID-19 and those without.

“One thing we thought early on (in the pandemic) was that it would be space or equipment issues,” Davenport said, adding that staffing is a bigger issue. “Those patients require more workforce, and we simply don’t have the workforce.”

Inslee said he fully understands the effect stay-home orders are having on businesses, but “the best thing we can do to strengthen this economy so we can reopen fully is to stop the spread of this disease.”

He noted the efforts by the Greater Yakima Chamber of Commerce to increase mask use before his announcement.

And it is not just Yakima County that could be affected if the virus’ spread is not contained. If Yakima County cannot contain the virus, it will spread to other parts of the state, Inslee warned.

“As Yakima County goes, so does the rest of the state,” Inslee said.

Lilian Bravo, director of public partnerships for the health district, said the governor’s order is in line with the health district’s campaign for people to mask up when they go out in public.

While she does not yet know what role the health district would play in the execution of Inslee’s order, Bravo said the district will likely maintain its policy of educating the public as to why they should use masks.

As for the funding, Bravo said those details are being worked out, but said it would likely be used to enhance the disease outbreak team by providing for more people, as well as improving communication and coordinating help for people to stay isolated if they test positive.

Secretary of Health John Wiseman said it is incredibly important that people stay at home as much as possible and limit contact with others. He strongly encouraged people not to have gatherings for Father’s Day or July 4.

“These are times when we want to be spending time with family and friends and it is simply too dangerous to be doing that,” he said.

Inslee said the situation in Yakima is personal for him, as his three sons were born at Memorial. He said transmission of COVID-19 is occurring everywhere in the community, not just in one sector. And he had strong words for people who downplay the virus.

“These cases are not just numbers, they represent people. And the virus that afflicts them poses a cascade of threats, economic and personal,” he said. “We can’t just put our heads in the sand and let this roll over us.”

Hispanic businesses doing their part to halt coronavirus spread, keep people safe

TOPPENISH — Freddie Perales, the assistant manager at Mercado Guadalajara in Toppenish, said his store implemented the strictest possible measures when the coronavirus pandemic hit.

All staff have to wear gloves and masks, and wash or sanitize their hands frequently. In the early weeks of the pandemic, staff sprayed customers’ hands with sanitizer as they entered the store until Perales could obtain sanitizer pumps.

As case counts continued to climb, the market made masks mandatory for everyone — vendors, employees and customers alike — to minimize the spread.

“We heard that a virus will get worse before it gets better,” Perales said. “We told everyone that we had to do this 100%.”

Gov. Jay Inslee announced over the weekend he will order Yakima County residents to wear masks while shopping or in other public places. The new order is expected to go into effect sometime this week.

Yakima County has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita in the state. The virus has hit hard here, with more than 6,000 cases since mid-March. Hispanic individuals make up a little more than half of the cases.

High Hispanic case counts

The Yakima Health District updates coronavirus race and ethnicity data weekly. As of last week, 52% percent of the cases were people who identified as Hispanic or Latino. They make up 49% of the population. Caucasians made up 20% of the cases and 43% of the population. Native Americans made up 4% of cases and 6.5% of the population.

Data is classified as missing for about 18% of the total cases, meaning a person may not have disclosed race or ethnicity information, or the hospital or clinic might not have collected that information or reported it to the health district.

Lilián Bravo, spokeswoman for the health district, said one preliminary theory about the high number of Hispanic cases is that much of Yakima County’s essential workforce is Hispanic, particularly within agriculture.

Bravo said the district has fielded some questions about whether case numbers are higher for Hispanic people because of larger household sizes, but hasn’t found evidence to back that up. She said the district’s data shows the vast majority of cases impacting the Hispanic population come from different households, rather than concentrated numbers of cases within individual households.

Nuestra Casa in Sunnyside and La Casa Hogar in Yakima are nonprofits that provide education and citizenship support for immigrant families.

Laura Armstrong, executive director of La Casa Hogar, also noted that many of the Valley’s agricultural workers, who are considered essential and have still been reporting to work, are Hispanic.

“There are layers and layers there. It’s about equity, and who gets to work from home,” she said. “In Yakima, who does not get to work from home? Farmworkers. Warehouse workers. Most of the workers holding those jobs are Hispanic, so it’s not surprising that this (the virus) will impact communities of color.”

Equitable access

Masks became more widely available recently, after grocery stores, businesses, community groups and cities started distributing thousands of them through a partnership with the health district and the Emergency Operations Center. La Casa Hogar and Nuestra Casa have helped distribute masks to Hispanic families, who have been grateful, as well as worked to educate families, said Caty Padilla, the executive director of Nuestra Casa.

“When we distribute the masks, we tell them, ‘We are giving you a mask, but this is not your ticket to do whatever you want,’” she said. “We remind them to continue to do only essential tasks.”

Armstrong said her clients aren’t pushing back against the directive to wear masks.

“This is a question about access,” she said. “We’re not seeing people not believing the virus is real, or not wanting to wear masks. We’re seeing more concern for their children, and what they can do to keep their families safe.”

Armstrong said another barrier, beyond access to the physical masks, could be whether language used in COVID-19 messaging is understandable to all members of the Hispanic community, some of whom may have had a limited formal education.

“People are talking about social distancing, but what does that mean?” Armstrong said. “Even saying (6 feet) can be confusing for people who may not have learned ‘feet’ as a unit of measurement.”

Small business efforts to educate

Padilla noted that many of the small, Hispanic-run businesses in Toppenish — including La Tienda Tapatia and Mercado Guadalajara — implemented safety and social distancing precautions even before the health district’s directives.

“Our small businesses are risking their bottom lines for the safety of our community,” she said. “It’s interesting that some of these smaller businesses are really strictly enforcing the recommendations, whereas some of the larger, corporate stores are not.”

Lucy Caballero of Antojitos Mexicanos in Yakima said staff implemented safety precautions when confirmed cases started in Yakima County. All employees have to wear masks and change gloves frequently. The restaurant also is enforcing social distancing guidelines for the safety of customers and staff, she said.

“People do want to come in and sit down or eat on the patio, and we have had to tell them no,” she said. “It was hard at first, but it’s important because we don’t want people to get sick and so we can reopen.”

Caballero said the restaurant is grateful for its regulars, who have kept the business afloat during the turbulent times.

“It’s important for us to get back to business, but we want to do it safely,” she said.

Update: Inspection form confusion leads Slidewaters to reopen early

EAST WENATCHEE — A “serious mistake” on a Chelan-Douglas Health District inspection form led Slidewaters in Chelan to open Saturday, a move that isn’t allowed until Phase 3 of the state’s reopening plan.

The water park was inspected Thursday by the health district. Slidewaters co-owner Robert Bordner provided a copy of the inspection form, which says the park’s COVID-19 safety manual was reviewed and the facility met all reopening safety standards set by the state.

The form provided by Bordner ends with a circled note: “Facility is permitted to operate effective today 6/18/20.”

Health district administrator Barry Kling said in an email Saturday afternoon that the inspector wrote that after “misreading” the current Phase 1.5 guidelines.

“He explained that this was based on his misreading of the so-called Phase 1.5 rules currently in effect, and he now understands that was a serious mistake,” Kling said in the email. But only Gov. Jay Inslee or Secretary of Health John Wiesman have the authority to OK reopening the water park before Phase 3, he said.

“I can understand why he took it as permission to reopen, and then prepared to open his facility in good faith,” Kling said.

Kling apologized for the error and said he would “strongly recommend to the state that this be taken into account regarding any violation which may occur this weekend.”

The health district in a press release Friday said reopening could cause suspension of the facility’s permits and “expose it to enforcement actions by state agencies.”

The Chelan water park was denied a temporary restraining order last week that would have prevented it from incurring fines for reopening early. After that, Bordner said the park reached out to the state Department of Health for guidance on who would give the park approval when it came time to reopen.

DOH referred Bordner to the Chelan-Douglas Health District, which issues its operating permits. They contacted an environmental health specialist at the health district, who reviewed their COVID-19 safety manual and performed the inspection Thursday. The inspector gave them permission to operate at 50% capacity in Phase 1.5, Bordner said.

Later that evening Slidewaters took the news to its Facebook page and said it would reopen over the weekend. Then on Friday evening the health district issued a press release saying the that said the outcome of the inspection was “misinterpreted” by Slidewaters as permission to reopen immediately.

Bordner took to Facebook again a few hours later, posting a statement saying it was too late to turn back and the park would open regardless.

“We have now crossed a point of no return, as of this writing, it is late Friday night. We have employees and customers showing up in just a few short hours,” read part of the statement. “We have no choice but to reopen, as we were clearly given permission to do.”

The miscommunication was the fault of the health district, not the water park, Bordner said in the statement.

“The representation from Barry Kling and the CDHD that this was a misinterpretation of our inspection is a lie from an administrator trying to cover up the poor management of the CDHD,” read part of Bordner’s statement. “We do not appreciate him shifting blame to us for his organization’s actions.”

In his response Saturday afternoon, Kling said the situation was “frustrating” but reaffirmed the park shouldn’t be open until Phase 3.

“Many of us dislike this and have deep sympathy with your position but we do not have the power to change it,” Kling said. “I truly regret that this has increased your distress in this difficult situation.”

Correction: This story has been updated to correct Robert Bordner’s last name.

Chelan County commits $920,000 in CARES Act funds for small business grants

WENATCHEE — Small businesses in Chelan County can apply for up to $5,000 in reimbursement grants to help offset the impacts of COVID-19.

The Chelan County Commission allocated $920,000 from its share of federal CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act funds for the program, which is being administered by the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority.

Douglas County approved a similar grant program June 5, committing $1 million for small businesses, with a cap of $10,000 each. The port so far has processed six applications using those funds. Applications are still being accepted.

Chelan County’s program is similar, said Port Authority Executive Director Jim Kuntz, but with a cap of $5,000, which will allow the funds to be distributed to more businesses.

“The program is just now being approved by the county,” Kuntz said Monday, the day the applications opened. “The county has other uses for the CARES Act money. The Regional Jail is one of them. So, they needed to take some time on how the money was going to be allocated.”

The city of Cashmere also used its CARE Act funds to implement a small business grant program, also with a $5,000 cap.

The federal relief funds are limited to COVID-19-related issues and expenses. Grants are available to small businesses in Chelan County with 20 or fewer full-time employees.

To qualify, businesses must be licensed by the state and have been in business for at least six months.

Applications in both English and Spanish are available at cdrpa.org.

The posted criteria includes a note that if a business has a “compelling need for additional funding,” grants up to $10,000 may be considered.

The money can be used to cover operational expenses such as rent, supplies, inventory and utility bills, and costs required to reopen. Those costs include the purchase of masks, gloves, thermometers, washing stations, sanitation supplies and the installation of protective covers such as plexiglass. It also covers marketing and advertising expenses. It doesn’t cover payroll.

In all, the port authority is administering $2.8 million in pandemic shut-down relief throughout Chelan and Douglas counties. The total includes a state grant program, community development block grants and funds from the port’s own tax revenue.

Chelan County received a total of $4.3 million in CARES Act funding. Douglas County received $2.3 million.