Skamania, Wahkiakum Counties On Shortlist In Washington To Reopen Economies First

By Troy Brynelson (OPB)
May 5, 2020 1:30 p.m.

Hair and nail salons, pet groomers, real estate offices and restaurants could reopen, with limits, in two Southwest Washington counties sooner than the rest of the state.

Skamania and Wahkiakum counties both landed on a short list of places that have significantly fewer residents and cases of COVID-19, fast-tracking them to reopen sooner.


Related: Washington To Reopen In Phases, Stay-Home Order Extended

Officials at both counties say they plan to get permission to open up, recognizing things can’t return to normal overnight.

Skamania County, at the entrance to the Columbia River Gorge, is especially skeptical of reopening too aggressively. Commissioner Bob Hamlin remembered when governments asked people to stay home in March, but hikers still came to the trailheads in droves.

“It makes us be leery of throwing the doors wide open,” Hamlin said. “We’re opening the door a crack and seeing how it works.”

Under the plan, residents of counties that haven’t graduated to the next phase should not use the services that reopen in other counties. People flocking to salons and retailers is a “big concern,” said Steve Krager, a regional public health officer.


“I would hope that people take that (restriction on essential travel) to heart,” Krager said. “I hope people are still cognizant of the impact they’ll have on local communities.”

It’s unclear when exactly they will get the state’s approval to reopen.

Skamania and Wahkiakum counties both plan to meet Tuesday to discuss the formal application for approval. The application includes confirming nearby hospitals are fully staffed and equipped, that testing is available, that there are plans for contact tracing and quarantining people who lack shelter.

The state’s Secretary of Health will then review the materials, said Chris Bischoff, Wahkiakum County’s Public Health Director.

If approved, the cases will be under close observation. The state, according to the application, must know within six hours of any “COVID-19 outbreaks” in the counties. Bischoff said that’s an important part of monitoring how reopening goes.

“It can’t be the second thing you do,” he said. “It’s got to be ‘Drop everything and respond to this.’ That’s really what they’re getting at.”

The two counties have had five cases total and, combined, have a population of about 18,000 people. They’ve also suffered the fewest job losses in Southwest Washington.

Gene Strong, a Wahkiakum County commissioner, said he’s optimistic but still wants to be cautious. He’s fielded calls from cabinet makers and video stores about when they can reopen. Their opportunity to reopen is another plus of being a rural community, he said.

“We’re not having that face-to-face contact, with people constantly around us, so there’s an advantage to living in a rural part of the state,” he said.