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COVID-19: Where Things Stand as of September 3, 2020


September 4, 2020 by Steve Gross
Category: Elections , Open Public Meetings Act , Utilities - Billing and Collection , Public Records Act , COVID-19

COVID-19: Where Things Stand as of September 3, 2020

This blog post provides an overview of recent state (and some federal) actions in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

The short version is that September 1 deadlines have been extended to October 1. And local agencies get more money and more time to spend it.

Additionally, Proclamation 20-25.7, the Safe Start Washington Phased Reopening County-by-County Plan (“Safe Start,” issued July 24), the Order of the Secretary of Health 20-03.1 (requiring facial covering statewide, issued July 24), and all other provisions of Proclamations 20-25, et seq., remain in full force and effect until the emergency is declared over or the order is amended or rescinded.

CARES Act Funding

Governor Inslee announced nearly $190 million in additional CARES Act funding for cities, counties, and local health jurisdictions that did not receive direct distributions from the federal government. Each county will receive at least $300,000 (an increase from $250,000 previously) and each city will receive at least $30,000 (an increase from $25,000 previously). The state Department of Commerce (DOC) has posted the new CARES Act Coronavirus Relief Fund distribution amounts for all cities and counties.

In addition to the new distribution amounts, the DOC is preparing contract amendments extending the deadlines to expend Coronavirus Relief Funds and file for reimbursement by one month. Jurisdictions will now be able to receive reimbursement for eligible expenses incurred through November 30 (previously October 31) and the final invoice must be submitted by December 15 (previously November 15).

The U.S. Treasury Department (Treasury) updated its Coronavirus Relief Fund Guidance on September 2 to include new supplemental guidance on the use of funds to cover payroll/benefits — including clarification on what it means for a cost to be a “substantially different use” than originally budgeted and for employees to be “substantially dedicated” to mitigating or responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Treasury also updated its Coronavirus Relief Fund FAQs on August 10 and again on September 2 to clarify a few issues. In particular, the August 10 version included several new questions related to small business grants and loans, including whether grant/loan awards are considered taxable business income. The September 2 update included questions on the use of funds for expenses associated with the safe reopening of schools (whether distance learning or in-person learning) or upgrading critical public health infrastructure, such as providing access to running water for individuals and families in rural and tribal areas to improve hygiene and protect against the virus.

To see what changed in the most recent guidance, see Pacifica Law Group’s “blackline” versions of the Coronavirus Relief Fund Guidance (showing changes from June 30 to September 2) and its updates to the Frequently Asked Questions (showing changes from August 10 to September 2).

Elections

The Washington Secretary of State issued an emergency rule requiring ballot packets be sent to voters as first-class mail, and these packets must be sent at least 15 days before Election Day. Ballots were previously sent as bulk-rate mail, which can have a slower processing time. Return envelopes included in ballot packages are already stamped with first-class postage. 

Open Public Meetings Act Update

Governor Inslee issued Proclamation 20-28.9 on September 2. The existing OPMA statutory waivers are extended through October 1.

In-person meetings are still prohibited unless your county is in Phase 3 of the Safe Start Washington Phased Reopening County-by-County Plan.

If your jurisdiction is in Phase 3, you may (but are not required to) allow for an in-person meeting in addition to a remote meeting. If you have an in-person component to your meeting you must still provide, at a minimum, telephonic access that allows all persons to hear each other at the same time. In-person meetings are limited to the maximum number of people who are allowed to gather in the county in which the meeting is held. All attendees must be separated by at least six feet and must wear face coverings. (This can be done at your primary meeting location as well as overflow physical locations if necessary). Your jurisdiction must comply with all the provisions of the Safe Start plan related to in-person meetings, i.e. Proclamation 20-25.7, and the Washington State Secretary of Health’s Order 20-03.1 regarding face coverings.

If at any time the in-person component cannot meet any of these requirements, the public meeting (including the phone or remote component) must be adjourned, continued, or terminated until all the conditions can be met.

Public Records Act Update

Proclamation 20-28.9 extends the statutory waivers and other requirements related to the Public Records Act though October 1.

The governor also issued Proclamation 20-64.1, which prohibits public agencies, including local governments, from releasing in response to a public records request personally identifying information and contact information gathered by COVID-19 contact tracers or in customer/visitor/employee logs. This prohibition does not apply to the name or location of a business or entity that is part of a contact tracing investigation. The proclamation expires October 1 at 11:59 PM.

Evictions

Proclamation 20-19.3, which prohibits evictions, rent increases, or threats to increase rent for residential tenants and certain commercial tenants, continues in effect through October 15.

The Federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a draft Order temporarily halting residential evictions through the end of 2020. The final draft is due to be published September 4; however, it will not apply in any state with a moratorium on residential evictions that provides the same or greater level of public health protections than those listed in the CDC order. The plain language of Washington State’s Proclamation 20-19.3 appears to provide a greater level of protection. So, unless the state’s provisions expire before the end of the year, the usefulness of the federal Order is limited.

Utilities Update

Proclamation 20-23.8 extends through October 15 the current prohibition on utility service providers from (1) disconnecting residential service due to nonpayment, (2) refusing to reconnect residential customers who were disconnected due to nonpayment, (3) charging late fees or reconnection fees, or (4) disconnecting service to any residential customer who has contacted the utility's COVID-19 Customer Support Program to request assistance.

Stay Tuned for More Updates

As new guidance is issued by state agencies we will add it to our COVID-19 Governor's Proclamations and State Guidance page. If you have questions, please Ask MRSC.


MRSC is a private nonprofit organization serving local governments in Washington State. Eligible government agencies in Washington State may use our free, one-on-one Ask MRSC service to get answers to legal, policy, or financial questions.

About Steve Gross

Steve Gross joined MRSC as a Legal Consultant in January 2020.

Steve has worked in municipal law and government for over 20 years as an Assistant City Attorney for Lynnwood, Seattle, Tacoma, and Auburn, and as the City Attorney for Port Townsend and Auburn. He also has been a legal policy advisor for the Pierce County Council and has worked in contract administration.

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