(The Center Square) — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee addressed rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in two of the state’s rural counties during a press conference on Tuesday.
Benton and Franklin counties have seen a combined total of 3,371 COVID-19 cases since the pandemic began. New case rates are now threatening their chances at reopening.
In the past two weeks, Benton County reported over 244 infected people per 100,000 people while Franklin County 607 per 100,000 people in that time.
The state's target for both counties is 25 infected people per 100,000.
As of June 28, both Benton and Franklin County failed to meet state mandated target of 2 percent of those tested for COVID-19 testing positive in one week.
Benton County reported 18.9 percent of those tested for COVID-19 tested positive. Franklin reported 37 percent of those tested for COVID-19 tested positive.
Wearing a mask at Columbia Basin College in Pasco, Washington, Inslee spoke with reporters about the importance of wearing cloth masks and social distancing in line with official state guidelines.
“We’re going to come out on top,” Inslee said. “And that involves using our heads and a little bit of cloth on our faces.”
In Benton County, a total of 1,734 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed by Washington’s Department of Health (DOH) and 75 have died from COVID-19.
In Franklin County, a total of 1,617 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed by DOH and 27 have died from COVID-19.
Benton, Franklin and Yakima counties are the only three counties in Washington that remain in Phase 1 of reopening.
Phase 1 prohibits social gatherings, limits religious outdoor gatherings, and requires restaurants and retailers to limit purchases to curbside or pickup.
Phase 2 allows for limited indoor gatherings and retail services, but has been put on hold.
On June 26, Washington mandated that residents wear cloth facial coverings except when working alone in an office, a vehicle, or job site under penalty of a misdemeanor.
A Benton and Franklin county order has made masks mandatory on June 8.
According to Inslee, masks and social distancing are among the most effective tools in combating COVID-19 and reopening Washington businesses.
“We need to reopen our businesses as soon as humanly possible,” Inslee said. “And we need to do the things that allow us to open up our businesses as soon as humanly possible. When we can mask up, we can open up.”
The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America found that masks were the most effective protection against airborne infection.
Inslee did not rule out readjusting reopening guidelines or ordering counties to revert to previous phases if cases continue to increase.
In addition, he urged Congress to better provide financial and medical aid to state governments, including COVID-19 test kits.
Washington state faces a projected $8.8 billion state budget shortfall through 2023. About half of that shortfall hits the state’s current, 2019-21 $53.3 billion operating budget.
Inslee has since vetoed an estimated $445 million in state spending and canceled raises for more than 5,500 state workers and has imposed unpaid furlough days.
The local Latino community has been among the hardest hit by COVID-19 cases, according to new data.
The Benton-Franklin County Health Department reported that as of June 30, 51.1 percent of COVID-19 cases so far have been identified as Latino.
Latino peoples account for 33.1 percent of Benton and Franklin counties, based on Washington Office of Financial Management 2019 estimates. Many are low-income and work in agriculture.
Inslee emphasized that while public health mandates apply to everyone in Washington, more public support for disadvantaged minorities is needed.
“When we find people who are positive, it is absolutely imperative that those people not go to work, not go to social setting, isolate themselves, and that their families also isolate themselves,” Inslee said. “People have difficulty getting a paycheck. They can get unemployment, but that can take time. We want to build a support structure to help those people.”
As reported by the Tri-City Herald, public health mandates are attracting defiance in the Tri-City area, which is home to the three cities of Kennewick, Pasco, and Richland.
An anonymous flier in the area has urged local residents to gather in Columbia Park on July 5 to defy the “tyrannical leaders” implementing COVID-19 restrictions on businesses and outdoor gatherings.
When asked about the flier, Inslee repeated his calls to wear masks and socially distance wherever required by law.
“Say anything you want,” Inslee said. “This is a free country. Disparage any governor, or senator, or president that you desire. But do it with a mask on so you can save lives.”