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Wednesday, September 27, 2023
Sept. 27, 2023

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Clark County officials, businesses hail Inslee plan to reopen state

By , Columbian staff writer,
, Columbian staff writer,
, Columbian business reporter, and
, Columbian county government and small cities reporter

Gov. Jay Inslee’s announcement that the state’s economy is on track to fully reopen by June 30 sent a ripple through Washington’s businesses, health officials and elected leaders Thursday afternoon.

He also said that all counties can either stay in or move into Phase 3. Combined with new direction from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that fully vaccinated people now can ditch their face masks in just about every indoor or outdoor location — the new developments Thursday signify the state’s largest leap back toward normalcy since March 2020.

“That shot is a ticket to freedom from masks,” Inslee said during the press conference.

Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said after the announcement that he supports the CDC’s new guidance around masking, as well as Inslee’s eased restrictions.

Melnick also said he believes Clark County is on track to open by June 30 or sooner if the state is able to meet its vaccination metrics.

“The timeline is a reasonable timeline,” Melnick said.

While case counts have been higher in Clark County lately, Melnick said they are starting to plateau and he believes continued vaccinations will push transmission down.

He also said he thinks Inslee made the right call in letting counties go to or stay in Phase 3. Clark County is a county that might have moved back to Phase 2, as it didn’t meet the Phase 3 metrics Thursday morning.

Easing restrictions for vaccinated people lets them know it is safe to be in public unmasked, Melnick added, and also incentivizes unvaccinated people to get inoculated.

“It’s more likely to get those people to come in to get vaccinated,” Melnick said.

For many local businesses, June 30 marks the light at the end of a very long tunnel.

Business boon

Marina Gephart, director of communications and media for Prestige Theatres, said she was “happily surprised” by Inslee’s announcements and that she was “glad that he’s following the CDC guidance and the science.”

Prestige Theatres operates the Battle Ground Cinema multiplex and two additional theaters in Oregon. Today’s announcement will prompt the company to revisit its current customer masking policy, she said, although it won’t be an overnight change.

“It’s kind of a legal gray area to ask people if they’re vaccinated or not, so that’s going to have to be a discussion that we’ll have, and see how other businesses will handle it,” she said.

Inslee clarified that the state won’t play a role in enforcement of vaccine requirements. It will be up to private businesses to decide whether they want to continue to require face masks, or if unmasked people will need to show some proof of vaccination. That could come in the form of an individual’s vaccination card, a photo of the card or an electronic health record.

“If a grocery store or a restaurant wants to check people’s status, they have the legal right to do so,” Inslee said. “This will not end the masks, but it will end the state telling you to mask if you are vaccinated.”

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Kisar Dhillon, owner of Burntown Fitness studio in east Vancouver, said he was excited to hear about the change in mask policy, but he thought some of his clients might choose to keep wearing them for a while out of habit or lingering safety concerns.

“I’m hoping more of our clientele that decided to basically quit or freeze their memberships will be OK with coming back now if they’re vaccinated,” he said.

‘Absolutely wonderful’

Among local government officials, the news was welcome. Clark County Council Chair Eileen Quiring O’Brien called the announcements “absolutely wonderful.”

“If it were sooner rather than later it would have been even better, but, that said, this will be great for Clark County,” Quiring O’Brien said.

Inslee recently appointed County Councilor Temple Lentz to the state Board of Health. Lentz said she was “cautiously optimistic” following the announcements.

“Increasing vaccinations will help us make this progress lasting and sustainable,” Lentz said. “So I hope we will all continue to follow the guidance about masks and distancing, and encourage those who have not yet been vaccinated to do so.”

Local governments took varied revenue hits last year due to the pandemic. Before adopting its budget for 2021, Clark County estimated that it had lost $6 million in revenue in 2020 due to COVID-19. Municipalities have grappled mostly with a decline in sales tax returns.

For instance, cardroom closures caused the city of La Center to lose much of its tax base for several months, while cities like Battle Ground faced less dramatic shortfalls. Vancouver, which had projected a dire hole in its budget at the start of the pandemic, came out relatively unscathed.

“It’s about damn time!” Battle Ground Mayor Adrian Cortes said of the news Thursday. “Let’s open things up. Battle Ground is poised for an incredible summer.”

While the response to Thursday’s announcement was broadly positive, the sentiment wasn’t universal. Rep. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, wrote an email to her colleagues that afternoon saying she was not in favor of “promoting/pushing” the COVID-19 vaccine. Kraft had previously introduced a bill that would guarantee individuals’ rights to refuse the vaccine and strip private businesses of the right to refuse them entry.

“We need to fully re-open WA now without making people feel like they must get a Covid-19 vaccine before this will happen. This is a violation of people’s consitutional [sic] rights,” Kraft wrote.

Columbian staff writer
Columbian staff writer
Columbian business reporter
Columbian county government and small cities reporter