Helping Hands Solution Center, Skagit County's largest food bank, has suspended food distribution as center leadership considers how to serve its clients without risking their health during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Sedro-Woolley nonprofit will be closed through the remainder of the week while staff sanitize the building and prepare a new distribution model, according to a Tuesday night news release.
As of Wednesday, Skagit County Public Health confirmed 14 cases of COVID-19 in the county, two of which required hospitalization. There have been no COVID-19 deaths in Skagit County.
Nichole Long, director of development for Helping Hands, said the nonprofit is finalizing plans to begin offering pre-packaged food boxes to clients at a temporary location in Sedro-Woolley that will be announced Thursday.
She said food boxes will be placed directly in a client's trunk, limiting opportunities for contamination.
Similarly, Neighbors in Need Food Bank in Mount Vernon will begin handing out food boxes Tuesday, and clients won't be allowed in the building, according to its website.
It will continue to be open for distribution during its regular hours — 1 to 6 p.m. Tuesdays — but only for drive-up service, the website states.
Other smaller food banks, including the Tri-Parish Food Bank in Burlington and the Concrete Food Bank are also adopting food box models, and are avoiding unnecessary contact between volunteers and clients.
For the immediate future, the Helping Hands warehouse will be closed to the public to preserve the safety of the food supply.
In a time when higher-than-average food insecurity is expected, food banks become more and more essential to the well-being of the public, and their resources need to be protected, she said.
"We're more than a charity right now," Long said. "We're an essential service.
"There's very few government agencies that are just handing out food, no questions asked."
Long said clients were ignoring social distancing recommendations, and there was concern that aggression or even violence could break out, jeopardizing the nonprofit's staff, volunteers and food supply.
At the same time, she said she'd seen about 10 percent increases in the number of people seeking food each week since late February. She expects the increases to continue in light of Gov. Jay Inslee's order to close bars and restaurants.
Long said the nonprofit's costs have doubled in the same period, as grocery stores have less excess food.
"We're seeing a ripple effect, for sure," she said.
Helping Hands' partner location in Marblemount was open as usual Wednesday, and its facility in Anacortes will be open Friday.
Going forward, they will both be affected by Helping Hands' new distribution model, the release states.
People in urgent need of food can call Helping Hands at 360-856-2211, according to the release.
Among other closures or event cancellations:
— The city of Sedro-Woolley closed all public facilities including City Hall.
— The Economic Development Alliance of Skagit County will have most of its staff work remotely beginning Thursday. Staff will still be available to answer phone calls during business hours and will be available by email.
— Skagit Habitat for Humanity has suspended all volunteer activities until April 14.
— The Northwest Multiple Listing Service on Tuesday temporarily suspended in-person public and broker open houses.
— The town of La Conner closed Town Hall to the public until further notice on Tuesday.