As members of the fifth generation running Yakima-based Domex Superfresh Growers, the Kershaws are no strangers to contingency planning. Spring freezes, droughts, new regulations, stricter immigration policies and, in recent years, pervasive late-summer smoke from Eastern Washington fires are all things that have made siblings Robert and Kristin Kershaw, cousin Kevin Kershaw and their associated growers especially nimble at making course corrections.
The latter variable — planning for smoke that interferes with workers in the orchards and the fruit-packing lines — had the company that grows, packs and ships fruit for 1,000 growers laying in big supplies of air-filtration masks.
But, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit Washington, and health providers were scrambling for supplies, they didn’t hesitate. Domex donated all 1,095 of its masks to health-care workers.
“At that point, that was the most urgent need and the only way the average person could respond. Now things have changed,” said Kristin Kershaw, Domex’s corporate-affairs director.
Federal and state guidance is now that workers should wear masks. So the company is scrambling to round some up.
“Everyone is having to make high-stakes decisions, and you do the best you can with the information you have,” said Kershaw, in a voice raspy from the last vestiges of COVID-19 and allergies. Her two children and husband also came down with the virus and are recovering.
On a much smaller scale, I share that frustration — as do most people who were assured by federal health advice that you should not buy masks to protect yourself from the novel coronavirus. I could have bought some when they were still on shelves. Remember? All we had to do was wash our hands and not touch our faces. Yep, things changed.
So I’ve been stapling ponytail holders to folded bandannas with mixed results. And I’ve been tempted to swipe the Starbucks-green mask off a drive-through barista while waiting for my skinny mocha. Last week, I finally ordered masks from a dog-clothing manufacturer.
This is iterative decision-making, big and small. When we learn new information, we must respond.
Government officials at all levels are doing their best to keep up with conflicting information coming from President Donald Trump, who predicted everyone would be back in church for Easter, and his chief health advisers.
Washington schools were closed, at first for a few days, and now for the rest of the school year, and teachers and families together have moved online during an emotional and scary time. Stay-home orders have been extended and then extended again.
I’m reassured that Washington, Oregon and California are working more closely to share information and collaborate on how and when the West Coast economy should open more fully. That will help, but we also must rely on each other. Gov. Jay Inslee, early on, called on individuals to be leaders in their own lives, families and communities to protect themselves and others.
And early results show we are getting better at it.
Seattle closed 15 large parks last weekend for fear that people would spend Easter gathering for large celebrations, as we all used to do — in what seems like the olden days. Friday, Mayor Jenny Durkan lifted the ban but with some caveats: Keep moving, no sports and, at Green Lake, everybody needs to walk in the same direction.
Yep, parkgoers earned back some privileges for behaving themselves.
Lifestyle inconveniences like these, though, pale in comparison to the hardships faced by those who have lost their jobs or businesses like Domex, which is making contingency plans for its contingency plans to keep people employed and get through the harvest.
A warm spring is nudging cherry season earlier in May, and the federally authorized foreign workers are already arriving. Growers are waiting to see if regulators will require emergency modifications to their already approved worker housing. That’s a stark departure from the usual course where rules are proposed, scrutinized and comment collected over months.
“There is no precedent for housing foreign workers during a pandemic,” Kershaw noted.
To accommodate social distancing for workers, the packing lines will have to be slowed and shifts might have to be altered or added. And then there are Domex growers’ international customers. Some countries have closed their ports. Exported cherries are mostly shipped to Asia usually by airfreight, and planes are not flying, Kershaw said.
And the masks? Will the company have enough masks if the summer wildfire smoke returns?
“We can’t even fathom that,” Kershaw said. “That would be just one more thing. Right now, that seems so far away.”