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World photo/Don Seabrook Maya Anderson with Lifeline Ambulance finishes telling a driver who showed up at the COVID-19 testing site at Town Toyota Center Wednesday that they don't have information about vaccines. Gov. Jay Inslee said Monday the TTC in Wenatchee would be one of four mass vaccination sites starting next week. According to Tyler Regier with Lifeline, about as many people have showed up asking about the vaccine as have come for a free test — 66 on Tuesday.

NCW Libraries closed down to in-person visits, in accordance with state guidelines

WENATCHEE — At 1 p.m. on Wednesday, the 30 libraries of the NCW Libraries system closed their doors to in-person visits, per new state guidelines. The system has libraries in Chelan, Douglas, Okanogan, Grant and Ferry counties.

When Gov. Jay Inslee released the Healthy Roadmap to Recovery Plan on Jan. 8, the plan did not have any information about libraries in it, said NCW Libraries Deputy Director Kim Neher.

“We were in touch with the governor’s office at that time and asked for clarification. Our understanding was could continue to provide services at 25% capacity,” Neher said Wednesday. “That is what we’ve been doing, but then they emailed today indicating that until Phase 2, libraries were not able to do that.”

Neher said they were surprised but are committed to keeping communities and staff safe and healthy.

She said the library system will continue to follow the guidance from the state and do whatever it can to continue to serve its communities well.

NCW Libraries branches have been open for in-person service since early September. Since that time, Neher said they have not had any issues.

“We’ve been so happy to serve our patrons, especially with the computer access we provide. A lot of our library patrons don’t have reliable internet or the ability to print a document, apply for jobs online,” she said.

NCW Libraries will continue to offer curbside pickup. She said they are looking to expand curbside pickup hours so they’ll be able to offer evening and weekend options. There are still many virtual programs available.

NCW Libraries will keep innovating and serving the public in any way it can, Neher said.

Those most affected by the in-person closure might be the people using the computers, she said. Wireless internet service around the Wenatchee Library was expanded this summer to around 400 feet, so people can drive up and use it.

NCW Libraries is also looking at adding a printing service, so people can send a document for them to print.

“Our staff will still remain on-site to answer the phone to answer questions and provide reference services, order materials for people. People can still come and pick up materials,” she said. “One thing after nearly a year of operating under pandemic rules — we’re getting pretty good at making sure we can provide good service even when we’re closed to the public.”

Biden launches sweeping COVID-19 changes

WASHINGTON, D.C. — President Joe Biden moved swiftly on his first full day in the White House on Thursday to fight the COVID-19 pandemic, his top priority as he turns the page on four years of Donald Trump’s leadership.

The Biden administration is aiming at a coordinated federal coronavirus response to the 10-month pandemic, focused on boosting vaccines, increasing testing, reopening schools and addressing inequalities thrown up by the disease.

Trump, who frequently sought to play down the severity of the virus which has killed more than 405,000 Americans, left much of the pandemic planning to individual states, which has resulted in a patchwork of policies across the country.

“We can and will beat COVID-19. America deserves a response to the COVID-19 pandemic that is driven by science, data, and public health — not politics,” the White House said in a statement outlining its strategy against the coronavirus.

The pandemic has killed more people in the United States than anywhere in the world, and left millions out of work due to lockdowns.

The virus cast a shadow over Biden’s inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday. Crowds, which often reach into the hundreds of thousands for the swearing-in of a president, were kept away for fear of spreading infections.

Biden will sign a series of executive orders related to the pandemic later on Thursday, including requiring mask-wearing in airports and on certain public transportation, including many trains, airplanes and intercity buses, officials said.

The administration will also expand vaccine manufacturing and its power to purchase more vaccines by “fully leveraging contract authorities, including the Defense Production Act,” according to the plan.

House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the DPA would also be used to speed up delivery of protective gear.

The Trump administration had invoked the law, which grants the president broad authority to “expedite and expand the supply of resources from the U.S. industrial base,” for protective gear, but never enacted it for testing or vaccine production.

Biden will also direct the Federal Emergency Management Administration to reimburse states and tribes fully for the costs associated with National Guard-related efforts to combat the virus.

The measure restores “full reimbursement” from the FEMA Disaster Relief Fund for costs related to re-opening schools. FEMA funds are typically dispersed after hurricanes, floods or other natural disasters.

Biden was due to speak on his COVID-19 efforts at 2 p.m. EST.

The new Democratic president has put fighting the disease at the top of a daunting list of challenges, including rebuilding a ravaged economy and addressing racial injustice. Other issues the administration plans to address over the next 10 days include healthcare, the economy, immigration and climate change.

Biden signed 15 executive actions on Wednesday just hours after he was sworn into office, many aimed at sweeping away Trump’s policies.

Those included mandating masks on federal property and halting the withdrawal from the World Health Organization (WHO).

The 10 new orders Biden will sign on Thursday will establish a COVID-19 testing board to ramp up testing, address supply shortfalls, establish protocols for international travelers and direct resources to hard-hit minority communities.

Biden has pledged to provide 100 million doses of the coronavirus vaccine during his first 100 days in office. His plan aims to increase vaccinations by opening up eligibility for more people such as teachers and grocery clerks.

Additionally, he will issue a directive on Thursday including the intent to join the COVAX vaccine facility that aims to deliver vaccines to poor countries, Biden’s chief medical adviser, Anthony Fauci, told the WHO’s executive board on Thursday.

Trump had halted funding to the WHO and planned to withdraw from the group in July.

Fauci told ABC News rejoining the WHO was a critical step in helping to fight the outbreak.

“It’s going to be really very important. When you’re dealing with a global pandemic you have to have an international connectivity,” he said.

He added that he was confident the United States could recharge its vaccine response even as some states and localities have said they are running out of available doses.

“I think we’re going to be there reasonably soon,” he said.

Biden proposed a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 package last week that would enhance jobless benefits and provide direct cash payments to households to alleviate the financial pain from coronavirus.

Late on Wednesday, the Department of Education moved to extend the pause of student loan payments and said it would keep the interest rate at 0% to help ease financial burdens amid the pandemic.

Some of Biden’s early initiatives could get bogged down in Congress, where the U.S. Senate is considering how to proceed with the impeachment trial of Trump. The Democratic-controlled House impeached Trump last week for inciting an insurrection in the deadly rampage at the Capitol.

Pelosi has yet to send the article of impeachment to the Senate. According to Senate rules, the Republican former president’s trial would start the day after the charge is sent over.

Biden has urged lawmakers not to let Trump’s trial interfere with his legislative priorities and confirming his Cabinet.

Bill to speed reopening of businesses draws fans but faces uphill battle

OLYMPIA — In a sign of mounting frustration over Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions, more than 1,500 people urged state lawmakers to support a bill that would speed the reopening of businesses and put legislators, not Gov. Jay Inslee, in charge of the process.

Of the 1,637 people who signed up for a hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 5114, all but 89 registered support for the measure.

Backers say that lopsided result reflects rising impatience with Inslee’s reopening strategy, Healthy Washington-Roadmap to Recovery, which critics say is unjustified by public-health data and is moving too slowly to save many restaurants, gyms and other closed or partially closed businesses.

Several business owners spoke of having to shut down or partly shut down multiple times in response to changing state regulations.

Blair McHaney, president of the Washington Fitness Alliance and owner of two Wenatchee-area gyms, said that since the start of 2020, his clubs “have operated at 11 weeks of full capacity, 37 weeks at zero, five weeks at 25% and now 10 days at 10%. We had nine months of no revenue, and yet our expenses don’t stop.”

SB 5114 is being championed by the Wenatchee Valley Chamber of Commerce, which sent out a “call to action” email burst Wednesday morning with information and instruction on how to register support of the bill.

Wednesday’s hearing turnout “should be sending a message that people want to find the [reopening] path that saves the businesses and protects public health,” said state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, a co-sponsor of the bill, after the hearing. Business owners are “being harmed and they don’t know what to do about it,” added Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, another co-sponsor.

But other lawmakers downplayed the show of support for the measure, which they said had been partly orchestrated by industry groups. Opponents also said the bill ignored the risks of rising coronavirus infections. “Frankly, I line up the groups that like to follow the scientists more than just a wave of emotion,” said state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the State Government & Elections Committee that held Wednesday’s hearing.

SB 5114, which is co-sponsored by 14 Republicans and two Democrats, is one of a handful of bills to push back on Inslee’s authority over the state’s COVID-19 response, much of which has been implemented via emergency proclamation.

Under SB 5114, the state would immediately move into the less restrictive Phase 2 of the governor’s plan; for example, that would allow restaurants, which now face a ban on indoor dining, to operate at 25% of indoor capacity.

The bill would also shift authority for the state’s reopening strategy to the Legislature, which would “regularly review the best available public-health data to determine” whether counties should move to more or less restrictive phases, according to a Senate bill report.

A spokesman for Inslee said in an emailed statement that “the governor’s appropriate use of his emergency authority has saved lives.”

Spokesperson Mike Faulk added that “Debates over this kind of legislation need to take into account all the potential unintended consequences that could come with complicating the state’s ability to respond appropriately to protect lives.”

Not all of those who signed up to speak Wednesday intended to offer testimony during the hourlong hearing, and only a small fraction were able to speak. But even the limited testimony showed some of the breadth of public sentiment on the issue.

Speakers ranged from nurses and public-health officials, who largely opposed the bill, to industry lobbyists and small business owners, who argued in the bill’s favor.

“The shutdown has been costing us over $120,000 a month,” said Dannielle Knutson, owner of three Olympia restaurants. “Every day we are not open, we are continuing to pile on more and more debt in our businesses, as well as my personal life.”

Opponents of the bill, though heavily outnumbered by supporters, also made their case forcefully.

“With ... hospitalizations rising, we do not believe the state is ready to move forward,” warned Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID response at the state Department of Health. SB 5114 “goes too fast without any health data to support” reopening at that rate.

Prospects for SB 5114 remain uncertain. Hunt acknowledged the challenges small businesses face under the restrictions, but said the Senate bill and a companion measure in the House lacked sufficient support from lawmakers and are “certainly crossways with what the [Inslee] administration is doing.” Both the state House and Senate have Democratic majorities.

But Braun and Mullet, a pro-business Democrat, said SB 5114’s main goal is to pressure Inslee to compromise on his reopening plan. Braun and Mullet said the hearing’s heavy turnout could also put pressure on Democrat lawmakers to potentially break with Inslee and push for a compromise to reopen businesses faster.

Many Democrats are “trying to have it both ways — they don’t want to split with the governor, but they want to help the restaurants” and other businesses, Braun said. “This kind of forces them to make their decision: Are they going to just blindly follow the governor. Are they gonna look for a way to safely open restaurants.”

World staff writer Nevonne McDaniels contributed to this report.