Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Our community is gripped by an unprecedented challenge with the outbreak of COVID-19. As the pandemic evolves, we have moved from initial awareness to confirmed local presence to a robust regional response. Locally, the Whatcom County Health Department is the lead agency. The City of Bellingham has joined the Health Department, Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office Division of Emergency Management, Peace Health and local Tribal leaders in a Unified Command.
Unified Command is a nationally utilized management structure that brings together the leaders of all involved organizations to coordinate an effective response. Our community is concerned about more than public health. The Unified Command is working to address comprehensive issues including financial impacts to local businesses and workers who are temporarily unemployed, serving people who are experiencing homelessness, providing childcare and nutrition, and more.
While the City of Bellingham is an active participant in addressing these countywide issues with the Unified Command, we are simultaneously working to address issues specific to city operations and services. Priorities specific to the City of Bellingham include ensuring public health and safety, assisting in the protection of our community’s most vulnerable, and positioning Bellingham for economic and community recovery.
The city’s paramount duty is ensuring public health and safety. I have directed staff to prioritize police and fire services and water and wastewater services. In response to mandates made by Governor Inslee to limit group gatherings, the city is currently physically staffed with only essential employees to provide these prioritized services.
I have directed that City Hall remain open with only the Finance cashier and the restrooms open to the public. All other front counter staff have been directed to work remotely. Additionally, all non-essential meetings and events have been cancelled or postponed through April 30. A list of cancellations and postponements is available on the city’s website.
When it comes to protecting our community’s most vulnerable, those individuals in the highest risk categories (over age 60 with underlying health conditions) should remain in their homes if at all possible for their own protection. For those members of our community who are unsheltered, I have directed city staff to work with Unified Command to stand up an emergency, short-term shelter to create more room for social distancing and to provide access to care.
To avoid displacement from economic hardship I have directed my staff to prepare near-term protective measures including an expansion of our existing residential rental assistance program and consideration of an emergency ordinance to provide protection for renters who are unable to pay rent due to loss of income because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
It is important that the City of Bellingham be poised to lead our community in recovery efforts. I have been in contact with the Governor’s office and Congressman Larsen on the economic impacts this outbreak is having on our community.
I know that recent actions to close bars, restaurants and other places of social gathering will create an enormous economic burden for business owners and employees. Our state and federal government will be leading the efforts to provide economic relief to businesses and workers affected by this closure, but the City of Bellingham will continue to push for the funding we need and provide input on funding prioritization and allocation.
Please remember local businesses and nonprofits by purchasing gift certificates for later use and making donations if you can.
We are actively advancing solutions as fast as we can. As we continue into this uncharted territory, I will do my best to regularly communicate with you. Every effort we are making today is in support of slowing the spread of this virus so that we do not overwhelm our nation’s intensive care facilities, reserving life-saving care for those most at risk.
Bellingham joins other communities around the nation to do our part to adhere to recommendations made by public health officials. Our community’s success will be determined to the very greatest extent by how we individually adhere to their precautions. I commend those in our community who are taking this threat seriously and helping their neighbors. We will get through this together.
Seth Fleetwood is mayor of Bellingham.