This editorial was published by the News Tribune of Tacoma.
You don’t have to listen to Gig Harbor Mayor Kit Kuhn very long to hear a distinct change in tone as his pent-up frustrations pour out.
In the early weeks of the coronavirus crisis, Kuhn was a loyal proponent of Washington’s statewide public-health directives. He exhorted Gig Harbor residents to stay home, wear masks in public, be patient and contact the health department with questions.
Today Kuhn is the epitome of the beleaguered small-city mayor, caught between a cautious governor’s stay-at-home orders and anxious business owners and workers who’ve lost their livelihoods during the eight-week shutdown.
Kuhn can’t provide relief for businesses’ financial woes or give them permission to reopen. He can’t answer their questions with the details they want. He says he’s tried to speak directly with Gov. Jay Inslee since March, but hasn’t gotten through.
“The governor can do a lot better if he uses his team behind him, and the team is the mayors and the cities of Washington,” Kuhn said on May 19 during his twice-weekly Facebook chat with Gig Harbor residents. “You’re only as strong as your team, and you need to be in touch with your team — not just big cities but the smaller cities, too.”
Inslee is a busy man, and his pandemic response has put unprecedented demands on his calendar. Still, he would do well to hear what Kuhn has to say. To defeat COVID-19, the governor is counting on local leaders to serve as his lieutenants on the ground. Meantime, they’re getting an earful of grief from community members.
It might be time to work the phones a little harder, or at least schedule another group teleconference with local officials, like the one he held way back on March 11.
Deploying policy advisers and a staffer who’s responsible for outreach to seven counties is no substitute for direct communication.
Yes, Inslee is making strides in his four-phase release from the shutdown, including a limited decentralization of control.
Last week, he announced that 10 more counties are now eligible to apply for variances and possibly enter Phase 2 more quickly. That’s good news for hundreds of retail stores, restaurants, salons and personal and professional services; they may be allowed to reopen before June if they meet certain criteria.
Pierce County, however, is not one of those lucky counties. It would behoove the governor to ensure local officials are still on board, prioritizing public safety and conveying a responsible message to their communities — not flirting with going rogue.
Gig Harbor’s mayor continues to say the right things about social distancing and other precautions. He appropriately warns that businesses may lose their state licenses and face state legal action if they don’t play by Inslee’s rules.
But as he’s bombarded by residents’ complaints, Kuhn doesn’t try to hide his exasperation anymore; he says Gig Harbor, which has been holding steady at just over 50 confirmed COVID-19 cases and one death, ought to get special consideration apart from Pierce County.
“Our city is separated by a body of water with a big bridge,” Kuhn said. “We’re the only city on this side of the bridge that’s in Pierce County, so I think our situation should be a little bit different.”
Adding to his restlessness is that two counties that can now apply for variances — Kitsap and Mason — are Gig Harbor’s neighbors on the Peninsula.
The mayor is treading on dangerous ground here. A highly contagious virus doesn’t stop at a bridge, even one requiring a toll to cross. And if Gig Harbor were to open early, it would invite more customer traffic from the mainland.
A county-by-county release from restrictions isn’t perfect, but it’s better than fragmentation into cities and towns that lack their own health departments, testing and tracing capacity and quarantine/isolation facilities.
Still, there’s no question that Inslee needs steadfast local intermediaries to keep communities safe. He said as much during his briefing with reporters Tuesday: “We look forward to local leadership really helping make sure that we continue this journey of beating this virus.”
More direct communication to help sustain local leaders on the journey certainly couldn’t hurt.