Working Past COVID: Tri-Cities, Yakima Mayors look back

TRI-CITIES, Wash. – A little over a year ago, COVID-19 cases were being reported in Benton, Franklin and Yakima County. For Kennewick Mayor Don Britain, the news of the outbreak was concerning, but he like many others didn’t believe it would impact so much of his daily routine for as long as it has. The only thing he could reference to imagine what was coming was the previous pandemic 12 years ago.

“Even if we go back to the H1N1 health crisis back in 2009, that did not compare to this,” Mayor Britain said. “Shutting down our city offices to the public was big deal. Because in the country we live in, public input is a huge part of that.”

In February 2020 when Governor Inslee issued an emergency declaration. Local elected officials worked not only to break down the order in a digestible set of rules, but campaigned for the Center for Disease Control’s recommended guidelines.

One of the biggest challenges, according to Britain, was the public’s divided opinion on how the state and local government should respond to the pandemic.

“Hearing the frustration from our community wanting us to tell businesses to open up, the heck with what the governor says you need to tell businesses to open up! Well, legally we didn’t shut any businesses down and we cannot override a governor’s emergency order. So that was frustrating,” Britain said. “Then, on the other end of that as we’re advocating for safe reopening of businesses you have the other side of the spectrum going why are you advocating for businesses to reopen when we have this pandemic going on?”

So, in response, the mayors prioritized listening to the complaints of the community, then presented them to the state and health districts.  Their efforts were in pursuit of fair governance for all citizens while continuing to plead to the community to follow the guidelines and limit the spread of COVID-19.

Richland Mayor Ryan Lukson, who contracted COVID-19 and recovered, questioned why similar activities received a different set of rules.

READ: Benton County mass vaccination site to offer Johnson & Johnson vaccine

“For example, early on gymnastics clubs were open, but dance clubs were not. So, we helped fight to help try to get the dance clubs included on the same level. Just things that maybe logically didn’t make a lot of sense, that we’re done, that were oversights from the state. We would go to the department of health and advocate to open up,” Lukson said.

For Pasco Mayor Saul Martinez, his experience is a little different compared to the other mayors. He is the first Latino elected to the city position. His ideas of economic growth were quickly put on hold when the pandemic hit.

“I would have never thought in a million years that the pandemic would come during a time when I was hoping to do a lot of other things in the city of Pasco, but there is always a reason for these things to happen and I was willing to step up to the plate to help our community get through this,” Martinez said.

Mayor of Yakima, Patricia Byers, felt the first 3-to-6 months were the most difficult. In December of 2020, Yakima had nearly 10,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19. Byers found that by forming partnerships with community leaders, the collective outreach helped guide the community through the challenges.

“The city never stopped working, regardless of being closed to the public. City projects were allowed to continue,” Byers said. “For the most part, city staff were able to work at home, which allowed city function to continue and when we got funding from the state and federal government, we focused on using it to the greatest benefit to everyone we can.”

READ: Inslee loosens ‘Healthy Washington’ requirements for counties to remain in phase 3

We asked the mayors what will take to get back to normalcy? Lukson and Martinez believe the communities must respect the safety guidelines and get vaccinated as soon as possible.

“Until we reach a vaccination number that is well over 50%, I don’t think we’re going to be returning to any sense of normalcy,” Lukson said. “The key is to get vaccinated and we’re encouraging everyone to do that and, in the meantime, continue to social distance and wear your mask and practice good hygiene.”

“It’s been a lot of challenges, but our community has stepped up to the plate and I would just like to say that a strong community and a community that sticks together will be able to overcome any pandemic or adversity that may come, ” Martinez said.

Make sure to tune into KAPP KVEW Local News at 6 PM for the continued coverage of Working Past COVID: What is the new normal? — a limited series.

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