'Beyond frustrating': Some mayors left feeling powerless over economic fate of their cities

OLYMPIA – While Governor Jay Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order is set to expire May 4, it seems likely that many of the restrictions will be extended – even in some rural counties that have seen fewer than a dozen confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Some local leaders across the state have expressed opposition to a “one-size-fits-all” approach to reopening Washington, hoping to be given more control over the economic fate of their residents.

“Our economy over here in Eastern Washington, especially here in Spokane County, is far different than the west side,” Spokane Mayor Nadine Woodward said in an appearance Sunday on “The Divide.” “We don’t have the Amazons, or the Microsofts or the Boeings that boost the economy.”

Woodward said leaders in Spokane County are working toward a regional approach to opening back up the economy, concerned about tourism and hospitality sectors that are especially vulnerable should mandated closures be extended into the summer months.

“Those industries have been decimated,” she said. “Half of the people who work in those industries work paycheck-to-paycheck. They have not seen three paychecks now in the last six weeks. We’re hurting. We’re struggling in a way over here that I don’t think Western Washington is and probably doesn’t understand.”

Despite the desire to move forward on an expedited timeline, Mayor Woodward said she would not do so without the governor’s stamp of approval.

“We understand that the governor has the authority to make these decisions and quite frankly, I don’t want to act outside that authority.”

State Health Officer Dr. Kathy Lofy previously expressed opposition to allowing regional reopenings. Lofy said in an April 21 conference call with reporters she was concerned that relaxing social distancing mandates in certain parts of the state would lead to increased spread of the virus.

“Are those folks going to be traveling around the state, infecting people from other communities and then starting up outbreaks again? That’s one of my concerns from the public health perspective,” she said.

Meanwhile, in Western Washington, some mayors have been left feeling powerless as mandates come down from Olympia.

Sixteen Snohomish County mayors penned an letter praising “early and decisive” action that saved lives, but seeking clarity on a path forward.

“All of us are wondering how much longer? When will it be safe again? There is a strong desire, that we as mayors agree with, to better understand the governor’s plan for a path forward to return to work, recreate, shop and worship again in our communities. There is a strong need for a logical, fair and equitable return to a ‘new normal’ when we can safely do so. As mayors, we owe it to our community to be able to communicate to them a transparent and realistic plan that will provide them a roadmap to survive economically in the wake of this pandemic. The governor’s direction is essential to our ability to do this and today we are offering him our direct assistance in this effort.”

Marysville Mayor Jon Nehring, who was among those that signed the letter, said Sunday on “The Divide” that he does not wish to second-guess the governor’s approach, but does believe it’s time to detail a path forward.

“I think by and large the measures taken in Washington state have proven to be a pretty good success story,” he said. “We’ve bent the curve a little bit. We’re in many ways looked at nationally as a success in how to handle this. So I think that has to be acknowledged.”

“I would hope that as we get to May 4, we can at least begin the process of looking at some areas where we can maybe loosen some of the restrictions and reopen the economy a little bit.”

In recent days, Governor Inslee has outlined plans to reopen residential construction and loosen restrictions on outdoor recreation. But for Main Street businesses, a timeline to reopen is unclear.

Amid mounting unease from local leaders, Inslee opened a press briefing Monday by trying to reassure cities and counties that help is on the way.

“We will soon be able to distribute $300 million in federal CARES Act funding to our local cities and counties,” Inslee said. “We’re very happy about getting that distribution going.”

He said specific allocations would be announced in the coming days, with funds going out in the coming weeks, pending approval from state legislative leadership.

“This is a good start, but we have to realize that the needs of these communities are much greater than will be satisfied by this original act of Congress, and we know that they will have severe budget shortfalls.”

In Kent, Mayor Dana Ralph said her city faces a $10-$15 million shortfall and does not have resources on its own to provide economic assistance to businesses on the verge of going under. Cities like Kent, with fewer than 500,000 residents, were left out of direct federal relief funding.

With the path forward uncertain, Mayor Ralph said she is deeply concerned about the economic future of her city.

“It is beyond frustrating," she said. "It’s the thing that keeps me up every night. It’s why I'm not sleeping."

“I am not a person that does well with not being able to take responsibility and I don’t like excuses. I feel like I have been making excuses more often that I’ve been able to offer solutions.”