metro

Larsen and Stephens hold a town hall

On May 8, San Juan County Council Chair Jamie Stephens and the county’s Congressional Rep. Rick Larsen, held a town hall via Facebook Live to talk about how the American Rescue Plan “delivers urgent pandemic relief to San Juan County and surrounding areas.” The plan has been in effect since March 11.

“[T]he pandemic seems to be receding but not yet receded and we know that [because] we’ve seen the pandemic come back in three or four different waves,” Larsen opened the virtual town hall. “So, we still really need to stay on top of things, and the American Rescue Plan is helping us do that.”

Larsen noted the federal act has helped to distribute the COVID vaccine to the islands. Three months ago, he continued, roughly 1,100 San Juan County residents had received their first dose.

“But thanks to the rescue plan, and the president’s executive orders and the hard work of health care professionals, more vaccine shots are getting into arms,” Larsen said. “And right now, nearly two out of three eligible residents of San Juan County — about 65% — have received, at least, the first dose of the vaccine. The best vaccination rate in this great state of Washington. Congratulations on that.”

That’s not to say that the pandemic is over, Larsen noted there is still a ways to go before that point is reached.

“There’s a lot more work to do … but staying on top of the pandemic is critical,” Larsen said. “The light at the end of the tunnel is real, I think, on the recovery. I think it is no longer an oncoming freight train, it is light —true light — at the end of the tunnel. But we’re not through it yet and I want to ask everybody to, again, get vaccinated if it’s your turn, if you can, and wear a mask and practice good social distancing.”

Larsen reminded viewers everyone over the age of 16 is eligible for a vaccine in San Juan County. For more information on where to receive your COVID-19 vaccination, visit sanjuanco.com/1737/COVID-Vaccine-Info.

The American Rescue Plan helped to ensure residents of the United States received a total of $2,000 between the two most recent economic impact payments — or stimulus as it is more commonly referred. According to Larsen, 80% of all adults and 77% of all children in the nation will receive funds from the stimulus package.

Individuals are not alone in receiving financial assistance from the federal government in the American Rescue Plan, county governments will benefit as well. San Juan County, Larsen noted, is due to receive $3.4 million directly from the nation and the town of Friday Harbor will receive $560,000.

“So there is aid on its way as well to local governments,” Larsen said. “There’s still a long way to go on the recovery but help is indeed on the way for San Juan County and Northwest Washington.”

Job recovery

During his joint address to Congress on April 28, President Joe Biden used the term “jobs” 43 times, according to Larsen.

“We’re trying to put people back to work as well,” Larsen said. “Creating well-paying jobs will continue to be a focus of mine and this Congress.”

The American Jobs Plan is an FDR-like investment in the nation’s infrastructure, Larsen explained.

“We have the chance to make that investment so we end up with a learner and cleaner transportation system,” Larsen said.

Earmarked in the plan is a proposal to create a multimodal trail from Friday Harbor to Zylstra Lake. The other is to fund the construction necessary to relocate MacKaye Harbor Road to keep it from falling into the sea.

“We’re really happy to be able to support those projects,” Larsen said. “No promises, right. It’s a process now, it’s been submitted and we’re going to work hard to get these to the top of the list in the final bill.”

Finances and volunteers

Streaming from his kitchen on Lopez, Stephens said he had just returned from the most recent mass-vaccination clinic on the island. He commended the county government and citizens for their ability to work together to ensure the COVID infection rate remained low. Additionally, he noted the low hospitalizations as a result of reduced infections and the fact the county has yet to have a resident die from the disease.

Fellow council member Christine Minney had remarked on how the islands’ response to the pandemic reminds you of why you live here, Stephens said, adding a thank you to volunteers.

As for upcoming federal financial assistance, Stephens explained how the pandemic pointed out gaps in the county’s broadband infrastructure. The council will be reviewing the money it is expected to receive from the federal government and will be discussing allocation in the weeks to come.

Unlike with the CARES act, local nonprofits the county helped to provide aid to last year will receive direct assistance from the plan.

“We know that through the new act that some of these things will be going directly to those organizations,” Stephens said. “As we learn through this pandemic, we are very happy it’s a direct allocation. The CARES money took way too long to roll out to jurisdictions and too short of time to use it. I think this program is much better because it’s going direct and we have longer to use it. So that we can do some of those improvements you’re talking about.”

Larsen echoed Stephens’ appreciation for the people who assisted with the COVID vaccine clinics and beyond. He visited the islands in February to observe the vaccination distribution process.

“I just really appreciate you mentioning volunteers as well,” Larsen said.

The future

“San Juan County is really dependent upon tourism,” Larsen stated. “Last summer, I know, was really tough for you all in the islands.”

According to Stephens, sales tax receipts are tracking well for this time of year, but he noted it’s likely due to a construction boom.

“So that sales tax may not be as much tourism as it is lumber and hardware,” Stephens said. “But we are looking forward to [the economy resuming].”

Stephens said many island residents are feeling “pretty good” about the local restaurants reopening. He observed that many island restaurants haven’t yet reopened to 50% table service and have continued to do take-out or grab-and-go for the time being. Staffing is still a concern to island businesses, he noted.

“Once you get to a certain point in the season, it’s not worth it… to the employee or the owners,” Stephens said.

Another island industry heavily affected by the pandemic was the Washington State Ferry service.

“I would say the ferry service has been under a pandemic for the last 15 years,” Stephens said.

In the islands, WSF ran its winter schedule for more than a year. This service reduction was due to reduced ridership, staffing issues and smaller vessels. Ferries began a limited summer schedule on May 9 but because of a fire on the Wenatchee ferry, it’s possible that service may be further affected.

An estimated 10 million residents in the nation face homelessness if the federal eviction moratorium is overturned. San Juan County has received additional funding for rental assistance and interested parties can visit the Opportunity Councils’ website at oppco.org/sanjuanrentalassistancetenant to apply or call 360-734-5121 ext 308.

San Juan County anticipated the federal government’s rental assistance and provided an entire year’s worth of funds to local agencies to help through the first quarter of the year.

“People are still being added to the list,” Stephens said. “There are more people now than there were last year at this time that are requiring rental assistance.”

To watch the town hall, visit facebook.com/RepRickLarsen/videos/vb.135654683137079/1622098244656944.

“Our success in this whole pandemic has been due to our staff, who are exhausted, and the many volunteers and the cooperation of all the citizens of San Juan County,” Stephens said.