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Washington state rolls out new COVID-19 testing rules for agricultural workers

Aug. 20--In the aftermath of a serious COVID-19 outbreak at Gebbers Farms in Okanogan County, Gov. Jay Inslee is ramping up virus testing requirements that agricultural employers must arrange for their workforces.

Inslee's Wednesday proclamation reflects the continued concern about the spread of the disease among the farm-labor force, which will expand in the weeks ahead as the apple harvest unfolds with the help of thousands of guest workers from other counties who reside in labor camps.

The updated regulations require broad-scale testing whenever an agricultural employer has more than nine cases among workers within a 14-day period, or the virus attack rate equals 10% of the people they employ.

That testing must be timely, and encompass all employees and contractors willing to take the test, and anyone who declines must not be permitted by the employer to continue to work.

"There is no question that we need to escalate our response to this pandemic, and we know that additional focus must be placed on agricultural workplaces," Inslee said in a statement, calling the measure "one step in the right direction."

In a separate action, Secretary of Health John Wiesman ordered Gebbers Farms, which employs some 4,500 men and women, to test all of their labor force in the coming weeks.

Amy Philpott, a Gebbers Farms spokeswoman, said that the company has always supported testing, and will join with the state Department of Health to get employees tested. That effort is expected to begin Thursday, and "it's going to take a lot of collaboration and working together on logistics," Philpott said.

Two Gebbers guest workers -- Earl Edwards, of Jamaica, and Juan Carlos Santiago Rincon, of Mexico -- have died this summer from complications of COVID-19. Their deaths have resulted in an ongoing state Department of Labor & Industries investigation of the family-owned company that is one off the largest orchard operators in Eastern Washington.

Gebbers protocols to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at the network of company labor camps earned high marks from Okanogan County, which is now struggling with a big upsurge in positive cases.

The Seattle Times last week reported that some workers who decided to leave early said there were gaps in the prevention efforts, and that the coughs of sick workers sometimes filled the morning air during cherry harvest.

"I got scared seeing what happened -- that workers were not getting medical attention," said Juan Celin Guerrero Camacho, who was one of seven men who shared a cabin with Rincon.

Philpott on Wednesday said that a third Gebbers worker -- a domestic employee named Francisco Montiel -- died Aug. 1 of complications from COVID-19. She said that Montiel started to stay home and quarantine after someone in his household tested positive, and that he then grew ill.

"He did not return to work. It was very sad," Philpott said.

The scope of the Gebbers Farm outbreak is expected to be revealed through the upcoming testing.

Philpott reported that -- as of late July -- 120 workers had tested positive for COVID-19. Another 156 employees, as of late July, showed symptoms and either were awaiting test results, under quarantine, or were going through a full quarantine because they did not want to be tested.

Philpott said Wednesday that some testing has continued in August as workers, for example, have returned from vacation.

Alejandro Sanchez, an Inslee special assistant, said that "a robust testing strategy" is a key to tracking the COVID-19 spread in the farm-labor force and that -- unlike earlier in the year -- there is more capacity to conduct these tests. He said the new round of testing at Gebbers will be done by the state Department of Health. State funds will be used to pay for the tests.

The outbreak at Gebbers has drawn the attention of the United Farm Workers, which has interviewed workers about their concerns and sought more state oversight.

Erik Nicholson, a United Farm Workers national vice president, welcomed the new state testing directive for Gebbers. He said that some agricultural employers had already increased efforts to test employees.


Coronavirus
Photos: Making art work

WENATCHEE — Call it sidewalk art using small garbage cans and fire.

Wielding tongs and wearing fire-proof gloves, Mark Yaple of Wenatchee earlier this month put hot ceramics into a bucket of damp newspapers on a sidewalk at Wenatchee Valley College. It was part of the process to fire raku pottery.

The paper ignites, and Yaple, a volunteer, closes the lid and the oxygen in the container is burned up to give the pottery a distinctive texture and color.

The summer quarter of Ruth Allan’s ceramics class is closing and her four students dropped off their pieces to be glazed then fired, normally something they would do themselves.

They also made the pieces at their homes because of COVID-19 restrictions. The summer class normally has over a dozen students, Allan said.


Local
Link commits $262,500 to Confluence Parkway

WENATCHEE — Link Transit will put another $262,500 toward the proposed Confluence Parkway project, which would create a bypass to North Wenatchee Avenue and another bridge across the Wenatchee River.

The money will come from a voter-approved sales tax increase that went into effect this year for Link to provide expanded service and invest in reducing traffic congestion.

“We have always assumed that we would have to contribute to the improvements in the corridor, specifically to the transit oriented improvements,” General Manager Richard DeRock said in an email Wednesday.

The city of Wenatchee is working on a required analysis to determine potential environmental impacts of the project. It had applied for $122 million through the federal Infrastructure for Rebuilding America grant program, but found out in June that it would not be awarded the money.

Mayor Frank Kuntz said the city planned to put that funding toward the environmental analysis but is now about $700,000 short of what is needed. A projected $1.5 million shortfall in sales tax revenue due to the COVID-19 shutdowns is making it even harder for the city to fund the analysis on its own, he said.

Link had already contributed $200,000 to the project, and its board voted Tuesday to allocate additional funding. Kuntz had requested $350,000, but the board decided to try to split the costs with another agency.

The Chelan County PUD is still considering a request from the city, said Michelle Smith, director of hydro licensing and compliance. No specific amount has been decided.

Last week, the Chelan Douglas Regional Port Authority’s board approved Kuntz’s request for $175,000.

Kuntz said completing the environmental process would make the city more competitive in future grant applications.

DeRock told the board Tuesday that he was conflicted. On one hand, the congestion on the north end of town slows transit, leading to higher operating costs.

“The cost of that congestion is about $1 million a year,” he said. “It costs us more in labor time to move those vehicles back and forth, and it’s projected to get much worse. The modeling says that by 2035, it will take 20 minutes longer than it does today to go from our base in Olds Station to Columbia Station. If we build Confluence, it stays the same as it is today. That’s worth $1 million to $1.5 million a year to Link.”

On the other hand, the transit system could be investing in a project that might not see completion.

“The question is when money’s tight, which it is, does it make sense to put money into a plan which is funding a potential for a grant, no guarantees we’re going to get it?” he said.

In August 2019, voters approved a 0.1% sales tax increase that took effect Jan. 1. An additional 0.1% increase will take effect Jan. 1, 2022.

Link has implemented some of its plan, though the economic slowdown has delayed its full expansion. It is expecting a 25% reduction in sales tax revenue due to the pandemic.

Chelan County Commissioner Kevin Overbay and Douglas County Commissioner Marc Straub voted against contributing money to Confluence Parkway.

Overbay said it wasn’t guaranteed that another agency would help pay for the project or that another round of federal funding would be available. He also raised concerns about using money from the sales tax increase.

“They voted for a reason and this does not fit into that reason,” he said.

Rock Island Mayor Randy Agnew disagreed.

“Yes, they wanted more service, but one thing they wanted was efficiency,” he said. “And one of the things that the Confluence Parkway would give us is efficiency. I personally would argue that would be part of the two-tenths the voters were voting for.”

He said it would cost Link more to complete such a project on its own and it would still have to undergo an environmental process.

Kuntz had suggested Link’s contribution come from the $7 million the transit system received through the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

However, DeRock recommended it come from the sales tax because it would take four to six months to go through the process needed to use CARES Act funding for a capital project.

“By spending our local sales tax revenues we can avoid this process and we can use the CARES Act money to cover operating expenses that otherwise would have been covered by our local sales tax,” he said in an email Wednesday.


Northwest
'The smartest person in the room:' State officials remember former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton

OLYMPIA — A steadfast leader. A loyal friend. The smartest person in the room.

Washington’s Republican and Democratic officials alike Wednesday offered condolences and recollections of former U.S. Sen. Slade Gorton.

A Washington Republican whose 40 years of public service included three terms in the Senate and three terms as state attorney general, Gorton died Wednesday morning at 92.

Former state Secretary of State Sam Reed described Gorton as “a good friend” who could bring together opponents to get legislation passed.

“He had a love of politics, a love of political craftsmanship, and doing it right and being fair,” Reed, who has long been involved in GOP politics, said Wednesday morning in an interview. “And conducting yourself with civility and moderation and bipartisanship.”

In a statement, U.S. Sen. Patty Murray — a Democrat who served alongside Gorton in that chamber in the 1990s — recalled their work on behalf of the state.

That work strengthened clean-up efforts at Hanford nuclear reservation, toughened standards for pipeline safety, addressed congestion issues around the Puget Sound and helped expand children’s health care, said Murray in prepared remarks.

“I’ll always cherish our collaboration and what we were able to achieve together on behalf of Washington state—as well as the memories from our friendly, yet competitive, annual staff softball game,” she said.

Murray pointed to Gorton’s willingness to stand up to his own party at times, including to help save the National Endowment for the Arts and, recently, to speak out against President Donald Trump.

Breaking with nearly all of his party, Gorton last fall said the U.S. House was justified in impeaching Trump.

“Throughout his career in both Washingtons, Slade defied convenient labels and stood on principle—we need more leaders in our country like Slade.”

But Gorton was also well-known for his ability to beat Democrats, said Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville.

Gorton will be perhaps remembered most for his three terms in the U.S. Senate — and the last Republican Washingtonians sent to the Senate. But Schoesler in a statement also recalled Gorton’s early career at the Legislature in Olympia.

“As House Republican Leader, he helped assemble the coalition that unseated a Democratic speaker in 1963, and set the stage for the responsible, pragmatic Republican leadership that modernized state government and dominated Washington politics for more than a decade,” Schoesler said. “The role he played in the enormous redistricting battle of 1965 is a legend around the statehouse even today.”

And Schoesler credited Gorton with helping to get — and keep — the Seattle Mariners in Washington.

“Slade was involved from the beginning, pressing the lawsuit on behalf of the state that led the American League to offer a franchise to Seattle,” Schoesler wrote in prepared remarks. “And when the future of the team was in doubt in the early ‘90s, he worked to retain local ownership and helped convince the opinionmakers of this state that the issue was more than baseball.”

“Whenever Slade was around, you knew he was the smartest person in the room,” Schoesler added later. “And it’s going to seem a whole lot emptier with him gone.”

Throughout Wednesday, public officials hailed Gorton in statements. Republican Secretary of State Kim Wyman called him one the state’s “fiercest leaders and greatest champions today.”

Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee said Gorton left “an important legacy for the state and the nation” and state flags would be lowered the day his memorial service takes place.

Much of Gorton’s legacy spanned previous decades — and also included an unsuccessful, years-long fight as state attorney general against a court decision that recognized treaty rights reserved by Western Washington tribes to have half of the salmon catch.

That fight and others earned him ire and opposition from tribes in Washington and across the nation — and ultimately helped cost Gorton his Senate seat.

But even into this year, Gorton continued his work.

This spring, he got involved in the primary bid of Raul Garcia, a Yakima doctor who ran a first-time campaign — ultimately unsuccessful — for governor.

The two spoke by phone early in the campaign, and Gorton later endorsed and helped the candidate, Garcia said in an interview.

“He was certainly a man who gave his service to the last minute,” Garcia.

Gorton also authored opinion columns, such as one advocating for reforms to make the U.S. Senate more productive and open to debate. In an opinion column last June, Gorton advocated for those seeking democracy for mainland China.

“We believe in the rule of law, not autocratic dictates, in open debate and in honest competition, all based on the fact that our laws are written by freely elected representatives of the people whom those laws govern,” Gorton wrote in that piece. “It is that system that we seek for the people of mainland China. The road to success is likely to be long and tortuous, but the prize is of infinite value. Let us continue to seek it, without doubt and without pause.”


Coronavirus
‘Streateries’ OK'd in downtown East Wenatchee

EAST WENATCHEE — A new pilot program will allow restaurants along Valley Mall Parkway to extend seating out into the parking spaces.

The City Council on Tuesday approved allowing these “streateries” to operate until Nov. 13. Community Development Director Lori Barnett noted that the valley typically starts seeing snow in November.

Streateries will only be allowed on Valley Mall Parkway between 6th Street Northeast and 9th Street Northeast. Permits are required, but there is no additional fee.

A streatery must be operated by the adjacent restaurant, which can use up to three parallel or diagonal parking spaces. There must be a barrier between seating and traffic, and a curb stop between the seating area and adjacent parking.

“The issue that we have in most of East Wenatchee is that our sidewalks are just too narrow for sidewalk café use,” Barnett told the council. “You have to have ADA-compliance, which means you have to have four to five feet of separation and we just can’t meet that.”

The Americans with Disabilities Act prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.

The new program follows a state order limiting indoor restaurant occupancy due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Businesses in the pilot program area don’t have off-street parking they could use for outdoor dining.

So far, Barnett said, Clearwater Saloon & Casino is the only business that has shown interest in participating. It can only use the outdoor space for dining, not gaming, she said.

Clearwater shareholder and general manager Michelle Peters said she expects to get the outdoor dining going in the next week and a half. The business has undergone layoffs amid the state restrictions, but she hopes at least half of her staff will be able to return.

Peters said she thinks streateries could be an asset to the downtown.

“It’ll be a nice change, and hopefully people are going to be excited for something a little new and different in East Wenatchee,” she said. “The city did so much to help us. We’re extremely appreciative. It’s going to allow our staff that needs income to come back to work a little sooner. Hopefully we can come back bigger and stronger and revitalize that area of town.”

Food trucks are not allowed under the current code or the pilot program.

Wenatchee established a similar pilot program for its downtown in 2016 and extended it several times. The City Council in June voted to extend it again through December or until the city adopts a new code, whichever comes first.

East Wenatchee’s program is effective immediately, but a public hearing will be held in September. Details on the ordinance are online at page 72 of the Aug. 18 City Council packet at wwrld.us/3hpi5nu.