The state Secretary of Health on Saturday approved Island County's request to advance to Phase 2

The approval means business services and activities listed in Phase 2 of the Safe Start plan are now permitted, provided appropriate guidelines and safety measures are implemented. Camping remains prohibited within Island County at this time, and residents cannot gather with no more than five people outside their household per week, according to the approval letter.

Island County submitted the Phase 2 request on Friday.

The approval comes four days after Gov. Jay Inslee announced that Island County was one of 10 Washington counties eligible to apply for a variance to move to Phase 2. County leaders said they immediately initiated the application process.

However, the approval potentially creates an uneven playing field for businesses on either side of the Snohomish-Island county line separating Camano from Stanwood, local leaders and shop owners said. 

“It is one of the concerns. We are the Stanwood-Camano community; our marketing is all about Stanwood-Camano. Now we’re creating this bright line, so that bothers me,” Island County Commissioner Janet St. Clair said. “We’re better when we’re operating as a whole community.”

Now that Camano Island restaurants can move to Phase 2, Stanwood eateries — in Snohomish County, which is still in Phase 1 — worry of being bypassed and remaining behind Camano businesses as the state progresses through the four phases of recovery. Snohomish County isn’t yet eligible to apply to move onto Phase 2, which allows for restaurants to open at 50% capacity and tables of no more than five people.

“It could be catastrophic,” said Matt Stromberg, who co-owns SAAL Brewery Co. in Stanwood with Kristine Birkenkopf. “It’s just going to drive people from Snohomish County to Island County. The idea that a business 5-6 miles away can open is going to diminish business here. It’s a complete imbalance.”

Health officials said they also worry Camano being more open will attract too many people from far away, increasing the odds of spreading COVID-19.

Birkenkopf and Stromberg said they’re working with fellow Stanwood business owners to call and write local, county and state officials urging that the Stanwood Zip code of 98292 be allowed to move onto Phase 2.

“All of the marketing dollars for the area is done as if we’re one region: Stanwood-Camano,” Birkenkopf said. “Our intent is not to deter Island County from opening. It seems unconstitutional for one business to have different rules than another less than 10 miles away. Our livelihood is on the line.”

Stanwood City Administrator Jennifer Ferguson agrees that the county-by-county strategy is not ideal for the Stanwood-Camano community.

“I’ve elevated my concerns to Snohomish County and to the Governor's Office,” she said. “I’m all for Phase 2, but this puts us in a real predicament, and it puts our businesses at a disadvantage.”

While Stanwood waits for the green light to advance to Phase 2, Ferguson said she’s meeting with local business owners to learn about their needs. That feedback will help the city decide how to spend about $210,000 in federal CARES Act money coming to the city that must be spent toward COVID-19 relief. Possible uses for the money include a Stanwood small business grant program and buying equipment to more efficiently sanitize park equipment and restrooms, Ferguson said.

“I need to know their needs. I need to hear some good constructive background on what a business is experiencing and what they would like to see,” Ferguson said. “If I know those things, then I can help create a plan to move forward and have conversations with our legislators.”

St. Clair, the Island County commissioner who represents Camano, said she’s voicing her concerns with government officials and will help advocate to allow Stanwood to advance onto Phase 2.

Meanwhile, Island County officials said Friday they could hear back from the state on their application in as little as two days, based on what other counties have experienced. The Island County application has one change, though. The Island County Board of Health voted unanimously on May 20 to approve the recommendation to move to Phase 2, but excluding camping. The Island County commissioners unanimously approved the Board of Health’s proposed plan later in the day May 20.

Commissioners and Health Board members said they worried allowing camping would attract too many people from outside the area, posing a higher risk of spreading the virus.

The decision comes on the heels of good news from a large batch of tests. Island County Public Health tested hundreds of county residents from May 11-15, including 200 on Camano Island. The free tests for residents with or without symptoms did not yield a single positive test result as of Thursday, May 21, said Theresa Sanders, Assessment and Healthy Communities director for Island County Public Health.

“We’re encouraged by those results,” Sanders said.

Another 300 Camano residents were tested at the Utsalady Elementary School drive-thru site on May 20 — one of several drive-thru locations last week around the county. Those results were not available at press time.

As of Friday, there had been 181 confirmed cases in Island County, but only five since May 1. On Camano, there have been 37 cases, but just one since May 1. Likewise, cases seem to be slowing in Stanwood where 11 new cases have been confirmed since May 1, bringing the city’s total to 97.

If Island County is approved for Phase 2, Sanders said health officials are urging Camano Island businesses and churches to follow current guidelines and consider their congregation or customers when deciding how to reopen.

“Using county lines is not the best for a pandemic situation, but there’s nothing we can do about that,” Sanders said.

Contact reporter Evan Caldwell at ecaldwell@scnews.com and follow him on Twitter @Evan_SCN for updates throughout the week and on Instagram @evancaldwell.scn for more photos.

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