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COVID-19 and Local Governments: Where Things Stand as of March 22, 2021


March 22, 2021  by  Jill Dvorkin
Category:  Open Public Meetings Act Utilities - Billing and Collection COVID-19

COVID-19 and Local Governments: Where Things Stand as of March 22, 2021

Editor's note: The Sporting Activities guidance was updated on March 22, after this blog post was published, to include the Phase 3 provisions. The link is unchanged, but we have updated the information below to reflect the new date.


Spring is here and (do we even dare say it?) things are looking up.

With more Washingtonians vaccinated and COVID-19 case numbers dropping, Governor Jay Inslee announced on March 11 that the entire state is moving to a less-restrictive Phase 3 of the Healthy Washington - Roadmap to Recovery plan on Monday, March 22. The state will also be moving back to a county-by-county evaluation process (occurring every three weeks), after having been in a regional evaluation process since early January. Phase 3 will herald in the opportunity for larger indoor and outdoor gatherings across nearly all sectors, provided that masking, social distancing, and other safety measures are met.

Governor Inslee also announced that starting March 17, more local government workers are eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine — including public transit workers, firefighters, corrections employees, and law enforcement personnel and officials. And new phases of eligibility are rolling out more quickly than anticipated (including expanded eligibility announced March 18 for anyone working or living in a congregate setting, among others). For more, visit the Washington State Department of Health COVID-19 Vaccine webpage.

And in national news, on March 11, President Biden signed into law the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), which provides significant aid to state and local governments, as well as an optional extension and expansion of Families First Coronavirus Response Act (FFCRA) leave through September 30. For an excellent overview of the legislation and what types of relief are available to local governments, read MRSC Finance Consultant Eric Lowell’s blog, American Rescue Plan Provides More Relief to Local Governments.

Open Public Meetings

Even with the statewide move to Phase 3 of the Healthy Washington Plan, the current Open Public Meetings Act (OPMA) Proclamation 20-28.15 (which extends the prohibitions and guidance in Proclamation 20-28.14) will remain in effect. This means all public meetings must continue to include a remote attendance option as well as follow the standards and restrictions set forth in Proclamation 20-28.14 and the Miscellaneous Venues guidance for any in-person component.

Capacity limits for an in-person component will increase to 50% of the venue occupancy or up to 400 people, whichever is less in Phase 3. In Phase 2, these limits were 25% occupancy or up to 200 people, whichever was less. These higher capacity limits are reflected in the revised Miscellaneous Venues guidance. For a better understanding of how the OPMA proclamations and Miscellaneous Venues guidance interact, see our February 2 blog on the reopening plan.

Sporting and Other Events

Parks departments and operators of other public venues and facilities will be able to host larger events, including sporting events with spectators. From Governor Inslee’s press release:

Spectators will be allowed to attend outdoor venues with permanent seating with capacity capped at 25%. The change affects both professional and high school sports, as well as motorsports, rodeos, and other outdoor spectator events. Social distancing and facial covering are still required.

Venue operators for outdoor venues with permanent seating must meet the safety standards in the newly issued Spectator Event Guidance. For all other types of venues (indoor and outdoor), occupancy limits and safety requirements can be found in the Sporting Activities Guidance, which was last updated March 22.  

Utility Shut-Off Moratorium Extended

On March 18, Governor Inslee extended Proclamation 20-23 related to residential utility shut-offs through July 31, 2021, or until the emergency is over, whichever is sooner (see Proclamation 20-23.15). The proclamation prohibits all energy, telecommunications, and water providers in Washington State from:

(1) Disconnecting any residential customers from energy, telecommunications, or water service due to nonpayment on an active account, except at the request of the customer;
(2) Refusing to reconnect any residential customer who has been disconnected due to nonpayment;
(3) Charging fees for late payment or reconnection of energy, telecommunications, or water service; and
(4) Disconnecting service to any residential customer who has contacted the utility to request assistance from the utility’s COVID-19 Customer Support Program.

Eviction Moratorium Extended

On March 18, the governor also extended the eviction moratorium through June 30, 2021, or the termination of the emergency, whichever is sooner. See Proclamation 20-19.6.

Re-Opening Plans for Local Governments

As we’ve previously written in this February 2 blog, local governments may create their own COVID-19 reopening plans. Governor Inslee has encouraged local governments to base these operational plans on the Healthy Washington - Roadmap to Recovery: Phased Reopening of Washington State Agencies (the latest, Version 7, was last updated March 15). For state agencies, the guidelines in the COVID-19 Reopening Guidance for Business and Workers are intended to act as minimum standards for operations.

Local governments should also take the updated guidance into consideration in developing the latest iterations of their reopening plans. The March 19 update to the Professional Services guidance continues to direct that employers require employees to work from home when possible and to close offices to the public if possible. And for in-person services, all employers must develop a comprehensive COVID-19 exposure control, mitigation, and recovery plan. Occupancy limits are increased for Phase 3 jurisdictions to 50% fire marshal capacity or 400 people, whichever is fewer, as long as physical distancing can be maintained (with the exception of one-on-one service in an enclosed room).

Conclusion

Over a year into this pandemic and after tremendous loss and disruption to daily life, we are finally seeing some positive shifts. Local governments must nevertheless remain vigilant in ensuring public spaces and operations remain safe. MRSC is here to help you by offering the latest guidance at our COVID-19 Resources for Local Governments webpages, in our blogs, and through our e-newsletters.


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 Jill Dvorkin

Jill joined MRSC as a legal consultant in June 2016 after working for nine years as a civil deputy prosecuting attorney for Skagit County. At Skagit County, Jill advised the planning department on a wide variety of issues including permit processing and appeals, Growth Management Act (GMA) compliance, code enforcement, SEPA, legislative process, and public records. Jill was born and raised in Fargo, ND, then moved to Bellingham to attend college and experience a new part of the country (and mountains!). She earned a B.A. in Environmental Policy and Planning from Western Washington University and graduated with a J.D. from the University of Washington School of Law in 2003.

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