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Chelan County PUD's consolidated service center in Olds Station. The Wenatchee River Bridge is seen to the right and the Columbia River to the left. 

Wenatchee seeks funding for Confluence Parkway project

WENATCHEE — After an unsuccessful attempt at a federal grant, the city of Wenatchee is $700,000 short of what’s needed to get the Confluence Parkway project going.

The project would create a bypass to North Wenatchee Avenue, and another bridge across the Wenatchee River, to help relieve the traffic congestion that has long plagued that stretch of road. The city is currently working on a required analysis to determine potential environmental impacts.

Wenatchee 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.

Now, Kuntz said, the city is facing a $1.5 million shortfall in sales tax revenue due to the COVID-19 shutdowns and doesn’t have the money to fund the analysis on its own.

“Do you just walk away and say you’re not going to do it or do you keep plugging away at it?” he said. “The issue in front of us today is we’re about two-thirds of the way through our environmental process and, in order to complete it, we’re about $700,000 short. ... Once environmental’s done it’s good for a 10-year period. It seems to make sense that you want to try to get that finished.”

The city has committed $2.2 million to the process, Kuntz said in a July 23 email to Chelan-Douglas Regional Port Authority CEO Jim Kuntz. He asked the port authority to contribute $175,000, a request the board will discuss at its meeting Tuesday.

The city has also asked Chelan County PUD for help.

Michelle Smith, director of hydro licensing and compliance, said the PUD is considering the request but a specific amount hasn’t yet been decided.

“We need to look at a lot of things, mainly whether it’s a legitimate expense that provides value to our district customer-owners,” she said.

The city requested $350,000 from Link Transit. Link spokesman Eric West said the finance committee heard the request Thursday but decided to wait and see if other organizations would contribute.

Kuntz said he’s hopeful they will be able to fill the gap.

“The frustrating part about projects this size is you have to spend a whole bunch of money on the environmental stuff before you get to go build stuff,” he said. “It’s just a process. We’re committed to the McKittrick Street underpass, we’re committed to Confluence Parkway, we’re committed to improvements on North Wenatchee Avenue, and we just have to keep plugging away at it.”

Harvesting milfoil

Widow recounts call with farmworker husband who died in Brewster camp

BREWSTER — Earl Edwards was a Jamaican farmer who in the winter grew ginger, garlic and other crops on his tropical island nation homeland in the Caribbean. For the past decade, he would head north each year for seasonal work at Gebbers Farms. This year, he did so amid a global coronavirus pandemic that sickened him and — on July 31 — took his life.

His death is now part of an ongoing state investigation into conditions at Gebbers Farms labor camps.

The 63-year-old spent his final days in an isolation camp, talking several times a day to his wife, Marcia Smith Edwards. He told her he was weak and sick and hoped to return to Jamaica.

“He said, ‘I want to come home. ... I am feeling like a fish out of water. ... Nobody cares for us here,’” Marcia recalls.

Edwards’ widow is grieving, and she is angry. She says her husband should have been monitored more closely by a doctor or other trained medical professional at the isolation camp, and that Gebbers Farms should have offered him more support.

Edwards’ death due to COVID-19 complications — confirmed to The Seattle Times by the Okanogan County coroner — is the second coronavirus death of a guest worker employed at Gebbers Farm. Some workers now say they want to leave early.

Amy Philpott, a spokeswoman for Gebbers Farms, said the company sent someone daily to check on workers in the isolation camp — including Edwards, who Philpott said had appeared to be improving — and provided free food and medicine, as well as help filling out forms for any state financial assistance available to those unable to work.

Marcia said she was not aware of anyone checking on her husband in the days before he died.

State and county involvement

Even before Edwards’ death, Gebbers Farm was the target of a Washington state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) investigation into compliance with state rules to slow the virus’s spread. At least 120 workers have tested positive and at least another 156 have shown symptoms and been quarantined.

In July, as part of its investigation, L&I made a rare move by issuing “an order and notice of restraint” that required Gebbers to either remove bunk beds in camps or comply with a state rule that camp workers be in groups that live, travel and labor together.

L&I spokesperson Tim Church said the company had requested a variance to allow larger groups to be formed, but that request hadn’t been granted.

In a July statement, Gebbers Farms chief executive Cass Gebbers said the state’s “accusations ... are simply false” and that workers already are properly separated into distinct groups that live and work together, although the company cannot dictate what happens during off-duty hours.

This week — in a separate educational effort — state L&I and Employment Security Department staff spoke with some 200 workers to provide information about workplace safety, paid sick leave and other state benefits.

State and county officials have been scrambling to grasp the scope of the virus’s spread in Okanogan County, which — though largely rural and sparsely populated — is now one of the Northwest’s hot spots. Most of the county’s nearly 800 cases have been in the Brewster area, where Gebbers Farms is headquartered. Beginning next week, National Guard members from Washington state will help provide mobile testing around the county, said Lauri Jones of the Okanogan County Health District.

County officials have praised Gebbers’ efforts to control the coronavirus at its network of Okanogan County labor camps. And Philpott says the company is following all recommended guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“Our hearts go out to the more than 700,000 families around the world who have lost loved ones to this unprecedented global pandemic. We will continue to support the health and well-being of our employees and our community by following public health recommendations,” said a statement from Philpott.

Workers consider leaving rather than risk the virus

A different view of the situation has emerged from interviews with guest workers by a United Farm Workers investigator who traveled to Okanogan County earlier this week. At a camp south of Brewster, Mexican workers told the union they feared the virus, and that many of their colleagues already had quit their jobs and headed home before the start of the upcoming apple harvest season.

They said they were wary of acknowledging illness symptoms to supervisors and getting sent to recover in an isolation camp, where they worried they’d get inadequate care and lose wages for missing work days.

“They were scared of those camps,” said Victoria Ruddy, the Pacific Northwest regional director for the United Farm Workers, which does not represent any Gebbers employees but has been looking into the situation due to calls from concerned workers.

Ruddy said she visited an isolation camp with six workers, none of whom said they were receiving care from a medical professional.

Some Jamaican workers also are deciding they want to end their jobs with Gebbers, according to one worker, who said he was living with six other men in a small camp cabin.

“Earl Edwards was a friend of mine. I feel so bad for him. If a guy is sick, you should pay him better attention,” said the worker, who insisted on anonymity due to concerns about workplace retaliation.

Philpott said she didn’t know how many workers were heading home early but that some opt to do so every year.

Testing was another concern. Workers told Ruddy they’d heard from their colleagues about coronavirus tests that could cost hundreds of dollars. So, even if they felt sick, they were reluctant to go to town to see a doctor.

A Brewster hospital official said some free community testing has been available to those who couldn’t pay, but if workers showed up at the hospital emergency room with symptoms, they would typically have been billed.

‘Your husband is not well’

Marcia Smith Edwards said her husband typically did outdoor work for Gebbers Farms, which is a major Eastern Washington fruit producer. But this year, he had a difficult indoor job working in a fruit packing plant.

One night, he called her to say he wasn’t going to work because he felt a bit stuffy and was coughing. She urged him to see a doctor who could test for COVID-19, which he did. But during his 10 days in the isolation camp, she said, he was never able to learn the results. (A postmortem test on Edwards came back positive, said Okanogan County Coroner David Rodriguez.)

Edwards also took his wife’s advice to try some home remedies, such as boiled ginger. But his symptoms persisted, and he kept telling her, “Your husband is not well.”

The couple have two daughters, one of whom was the last to speak to Edwards.

“He said, ‘I love you, and I’m going to get a shower,’” Marcia Smith Edwards recalled him saying to their daughter.

David Notter

Cody Molnar, the Extension Information Technology Transfer coordinator for Little Cherry Disease at Washington State University, collects a sample near an infected tree stump at Mike Van Horn's orchard in Zillah on July 30.

Wenatchee could lose $1.5 million in sales tax

WENATCHEE — The city of Wenatchee is projecting a $1.5 million shortfall in sales tax revenue for this year, according to Mayor Frank Kuntz.

Kuntz said the March sales tax was down 22% from the previous year and the April sales tax was down 24%. However, the city broke even in May.

The city doesn’t see sales taxes until about two months later anyway, Kuntz said, and this year the state extended payment deadlines because of COVID-19.

“Then in May a whole bunch of sales tax came in,” he said. “A lot of that was from transactions that took place in February. ... What you can’t tell is, are we really 22% and 24% down or are we break even?”

He said the city’s finance director expects to be down 15%, which would amount to $1.5 million. Hotel/motel and fuel taxes are also down, so the city could face about $2 million total in lost tax revenue, he said.

But with about $5 million in reserves and $1.5 million in the rainy day fund, the city should be able to make it through the year, Kuntz said.

“This is going to be a slower recovery than some think,” he said. “I hear speculation that it may be a year or so before we’re back to whatever normal is.”

The Velocity Swim Team, which includes swimmers from Wenatchee and Eastmont, practice vertical kicking in Lake Chelan. When the local public pools closed, the swim teams practiced in the lake. 

State to allow visitation, with restrictions, at long-term care facilities

OLYMPIA — A four-phase plan to allow visitation at long-term care facilities will go into effect next week.

Gov. Jay Inslee announced the plan at a Thursday news conference.

The four phases are specific to long-term care facilities and are not the same as county phases. However, a facility cannot move forward unless the county it’s located in has moved to the corresponding phase. For example, a facility could not move to Phase 3 of the long-term care plan unless the county is in Phase 3 of the Safe Start plan. Chelan and Douglas counties are in a modified Phase 1.

Phase 1: Allows compassionate care, window visits, remote visits, and outdoor visits with up to two visitors per day.

Phase 2: Allows indoor visits in limited circumstances if visits can’t be done remotely or outdoors.

Phase 3: Allows indoor visits in limited circumstances.

Phase 4: Allows full visitation.

To move to the next phase, facilities must go 28 days without a positive COVID-19 test from staff or residents, Inslee said. They must also have a 14-day supply of personal protective equipment.

The plan takes effect Wednesday.

State Secretary of Health John Wiesman said in the news conference that long-term care facilities have been associated in some way with 56% of COVID-19 deaths and 10% of total cases in the state.

“They could be employees, staff, visitors, but we can’t be sure that they necessarily got these at a long-term care facility for all of those because they’ve had many places they’ve been,” he said. “But we know they were associated somehow at a long-term care facility.”

Inslee said prohibiting visitation in the earlier stages of the pandemic was necessary to protect those who were especially vulnerable, but was difficult for many who missed seeing their loved ones.

“The upshot of what we will announce today will mean more grandmothers visiting their grandchildren,” he said. “It’ll mean more fathers visiting their sons. It’ll mean more friends getting together. And I think that’s going to mean real joy for people and I think it’s going to be really good for the mental health of residents. It’s going to mean people have what they enjoy most in life, which is to see the people that they love.”

Those benefits will extend not only to residents, but to their visitors, he said.

Inslee said actions taken outside the facilities could have impacts inside.

“I hope people, the next time they think about going to a big party where they’re going to hang around with 20 or 30 people, not wearing masks and standing shoulder-to-shoulder and breathing on each other, I hope you’ll think of the lives that would cost of people that you love who might be in a long-term care facility — or yourself, for that matter,” he said.