Kitsap County is moving forward with an application to enter phase two of Washington’s “Safe Start” plan as both the Kitsap Board of Health and the County Commissioners signed off on the measure Wednesday afternoon.
With the approval of both boards, the application was then signed and sent to the state Department of Health for approval or denial Wednesday evening.
If approved by the state, Kitsap would move ahead to phase two, which allows, among other things, restaurants to reopen for dine-in service at no more than 50 percent capacity and no more than five people per table; outdoor recreational and other gatherings of no-more-than five people outside of a person’s household, and allows a number of business services, such as hair and nail salons, to resume operation.
Most counties west of the Puget Sound, and 24 of the state’s counties overall, have moved to phase two, including neighboring Jefferson and Mason Counties.
The Board of Commissioners voted unanimously to go ahead with the application. All three county commissioners also sit on the Kitsap Public Health Board, and Commissioners Charlotte Garrido, Rob Gelder and Ed Wolfe joined with Poulsbo Mayor Becky Erickson, Bremerton Mayor Greg Wheeler and Port Orchard Mayor Rob Putaansuu in voting in favor of the measure. Bainbridge councilman Kol Medina was the lone vote against it.
The majority of the health board agreed that the time was right based on available data to pursue the variance. Commissioner Wolfe cited the relatively low amount of cases in Kitsap despite the area’s largest employer — the U.S. Navy — continuing operations as optimism that risk in Kitsap may be lower than in other parts of the state.
“Our case numbers, our health capacity and the commitment of our community I believe show that Kitsap is ready to reopen,” Wolfe said.
Putaansuu noted that the Port Orchard city council had passed a resolution Tuesday evening supporting the variance application and believed the data at hand supported the decision, a sentiment echoed by Garrido, who said it was time to even look at guidelines that may come down for moving on to phase three.
Gelder concurred as well, agreeing with Wolfe that the level of responsibility shown so far by Kitsap residents is one of the reasons why the county is able to make progress against COVID-19.
“Our ability to be successful moving forward is dependent upon each and every one of us,” Gelder said.
Public comments collected by the Kitsap Public Health District showed 834 responders in favor of the variance application with 114 opposed and 44 unsure or without an opinion.
Dr. Susan Turner, Kitsap’s Public Health Officer went over the pros and cons of a potential reopening with the health board. On the positive side, more people would be able to get back to work with more businesses open and the economy would see improvement. However, negatively, Kitsap may also see increased travel from places that cannot move on to phase two and there may still be limits in the supply chains for testing kits and personal protective equipment.
Medina noted that he was in a difficult position as both a representative of the county and of his home community, Bainbridge Island. While he generally agreed with the comments made by the other board members, he also had concerns with some of the negative aspects presented by Turner in her analysis, as well as how moving forward would affect Bainbridge as the city has closer ties to Seattle with the rest of the county and sees a high number of tourists in the summer.
Medina also noted that Bainbridge has an older median age than the rest of the county, which could make opening riskier. He also believes that his community is more split on the issue and was “happy to be the lone dissenting voice.”
“I think the majority of my constituents would prefer to not place more Bainbridge Islanders at risk of death,” Medina said.
Turner, in making the recommendation on behalf of KPHD to move forward, acknowledged that there were still plenty of unknown variables surrounding COVID-19 since little is known about the disease, and there is always a risk of another outbreak, which could overwhelm the local health system.
It is important, Turner said, for folks to remember to continue physical distancing and the measures that have worked in reducing the spread of COVID-19 over the past two months.
“Our personal and collective actions are still the most important tools for preventing surges and disease transmission,” Turner said.