YAKIMA — For Sean Gilbert, the April 21 arrival of a face mask shipment from China marked a turning point in the battle to control COVID-19 at his family’s fruit warehouse. Once the masks were distributed — and wearing them was made mandatory — the number of new cases dropped sharply.

The current tally is 26 among the more than 300 processing workers. Just two higher than a month ago.

“The masks were a turning point,” Gilbert said. “I believe unequivocally that masks work.”

Fifth-generation fruit grower Sean Gilbert of Gilbert Orchards holds an organic Skeena cherry as he talks last week about cold weather damage to this year’s cherry crops. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Fifth-generation fruit grower Sean Gilbert of Gilbert Orchards holds an organic Skeena cherry as he talks last week about cold weather damage to this year’s cherry crops. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)

State COVID-19 agricultural rules, in place since June 4, require all employees, except those who labor alone, to wear masks, including the crews thinning apples and now picking cherries in orchards.

Still, the novel coronavirus has continued to rage through the ranks of Yakima’s agricultural workers and the broader county population in a pandemic that health district officials believe to be increasingly driven by what happens outside of the workplace, where masks are often not worn in stores and elsewhere, and holiday weekends result in case counts spiking.

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The risks of such conduct prompted Gov. Jay Inslee to announce Saturday he will soon order Yakima County residents to wear face coverings in public spaces, a first-of-a-kind move in Washington as state and local governments try to gain control of a runaway spread that poses a wider threat to Washington’s efforts to tamp down the coronavirus.

“As goes Yakima, so goes the rest of the state,” said Inslee, who called the situation “desperate.”

Yakima’s soaring positive case count, 6,270 as of Friday, improbably is just below the 6,572 count for the entire state of Oregon, which has more than 16 times the county’s population.

The virus has created a crisis in county hospitals, which face critical staffing shortages as the count of patients with COVID-19 last week reached all-time highs.

At Virginia Mason Memorial in Yakima, where staffing problems have been aggravated by workers ill or quarantining from COVID-19, the hospital can’t handle more admissions, and over two days last week arranged for 22 COVID and other patients to be taken to facilities in Western Washington.

A hospital forecast projects the worst is yet to come. Hospitalizations are expected to climb sharply until mid-July, when they are anticipated to be roughly double the current level.

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COVID-19 has ripped through all races and all segments of the county population. But the largely Latino agricultural workforce has been a focus of county officials’ campaign to slow the spread.

A still incomplete tally of county cases involving food processing and agricultural workers tops 1,000, more than double the number on May 21. Those who tested positive worked for some 230 employers in a wide swath of the industry ranging from a mushroom farm to vineyards, dairies, orchards and fruit warehouses, according to county health district tracing.

Workers eat lunch in the shade during a break from work at Gilbert Orchards last week. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)
Workers eat lunch in the shade during a break from work at Gilbert Orchards last week. (Evan Abell / Yakima Herald-Republic)

A Virginia Mason Memorial doctor notes that the seriously ill patients include increasing numbers of farm and food processing workers.

“A couple weekends ago, I admitted four patients, and they were all aged 30 to 50 and worked in agriculture,” said Dr. Tanny Davenport, a hospital physician. “They have no business being in the hospital but are here because the virus caused a whole bunch of serious respiratory problems.”

Lilian Bravo, of the Yakima County Health District, said the county does not determine whether workers were exposed to the virus at work or elsewhere. Still, she said, “We definitely think the majority is community spread.”

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The stark trajectory of the coronavirus put new scrutiny on the policies surrounding the use of masks outside the workplace, where a May 22-23 survey of 50 county retail sites showed 65% of the people shopped without them.

Since then, a Yakima County directive was put in place, which tells — but does not order — people to wear masks in public places. Last week, plenty of people were going without masks while shopping in Safeway and the Walmart Supercenter in Sunnyside, a city that is one of the hottest of county hot spots for the coronavirus.

This Safeway in Sunnyside, photographed Thursday, June 18, has signs telling customers to wear face coverings. But many customers still shop without them. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
This Safeway in Sunnyside, photographed Thursday, June 18, has signs telling customers to wear face coverings. But many customers still shop without them. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

In the city of Yakima, a Dollar Tree had a sign on the door saying no entry without these coverings, but it was routinely ignored and even a cashier was bare-faced. 

Nearby, at the tiny La Milpa Market — a grocery and check-cashing store — the owners took a tougher stance. Owners Luz Bazan Gutierrez and Ramon Valdez not only posted a sign on the door, but repeatedly told people to leave the store until they went back to their cars to grab a mask.

At La Milpa Market in the city of Yakima, where checks can be cashed by Ramon Valdez, customers who enter without a mask are asked to leave and go get one from the car. If they don’t have them, they can get one at the store. Gov. Jay Inslee said Saturday he will issue a rule requiring such a policy for all Yakima County stores. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)
At La Milpa Market in the city of Yakima, where checks can be cashed by Ramon Valdez, customers who enter without a mask are asked to leave and go get one from the car. If they don’t have them, they can get one at the store. Gov. Jay Inslee said Saturday he will issue a rule requiring such a policy for all Yakima County stores. (Hal Bernton / The Seattle Times)

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A few customers have been irate. But most quickly comply.

“You got to be serious about this,” Gutierrez said. “I tell them ‘I care about you, and I want you to care about me.’ ”

The case for wearing masks has been buttressed by recent research that indicates the virus can spread as infected people exhale tiny aerosol particles that can travel far beyond 6 feet. That creates risks for workers who labor long hours in processing plants, but also for people as they mingle for shorter periods of time in confined spaces.

“You breathe it deeply into your lungs, and this is the stuff that you should be worried about,” said Kim Prather, an atmospheric chemist at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego.

Prather was the lead author of a Science magazine article last month stating that a “large proportion” of coronavirus disease spread appears to be through the aerosol transmissions, and recommended properly fitted masks to reduce the risks.

Inslee, in making his Saturday announcement, said “science has become very clear about the efficacy of masks.”

In the fields and warehouses

Though Inslee’s order puts a spotlight on improving safety of public spaces, state and county officials still must grapple with the ongoing risks of workers acquiring COVID-19 on the job.

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This spring at the fruit processing plants, masks were in short supply. And county officials tracked dozens of cases to these employers.

In May, workers at more than a half dozen of these plants walked off the job, at least briefly, to press for better safety conditions and hazard pay.

Inslee cited those strikers in announcing the agricultural workplace protections that included masking requirements.

Since then, at several of the processing operations that suffered significant outbreaks, such as Gilbert Orchards, case counts appear to have stabilized, according to information released by the health district.

But at other warehouses, cases continue to climb.

At Jack Frost Fruit, a Yakima-based warehouse, the number of employees who have tested positive jumped from six as of May 21 to 31 as of June 15.

“It has been a rapidly changing situation,” said Patrick Martinez, a company compliance officer who said cases rose once the strike was over even as protections were in place. Martinez said Jack Frost this week will offer testing to all employees to try to better understand the scope of infections.

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County investigators also are tracking a recent outbreak at a labor camp of temporary workers operated by Green Acres Farms, where 35 employees tested positive as of earlier this month. These camps lodge lots of people, and have been a point of concern for farm labor advocates who lobbied the state to come up with Inslee’s new set of COVID-19 rules for agriculture.

Erik Nicholson, national vice president of the United Farm Workers, said grower compliance with the rules is spotty in the orchards he saw. Nicholson visited Finley Cherries in Benton County. There, Nicholson said, he saw several hundred workers picking mostly without masks, and found filthy toilets.

Nicholson phoned in a complaint to the state Department of Labor and Industries, which triggered a June 12 inspection of the orchard business.

A Finley spokesman said the company provides masks for workers and frequently cleans the toilets. He also said the state inspection found no significant problems.

Tim Church, a state Labor and Industries spokesman, said the inquiry was not yet complete, so he could not comment on the findings.

Anger and grief

In the weeks ahead, one of the biggest challenges in slowing the pandemic will be changing attitudes.

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Some residents are deeply skeptical about the threat posed by the coronavirus.  

Jason White, a Yakima City Council member who has asserted that healthy immune systems fortified by vitamins can safeguard people from the virus, has helped organize public events where people unhappy with store closures and other restrictions gather — often without masks — to protest. He was at it again last week with a Facebook post promoting a Saturday gathering for what he called “Liberty Zone Live.”

In the county’s Latino community, which constitutes nearly half the population, many recognize the threat posed by the coronavirus. With a mixture of anger and grief, fruit packing workers staged a June 3 demonstration in front of the state Department of Labor and Industries to honor a colleague, David Cruz, who died of complications of COVID-19.

But Joseph Hernandez, who installs automotive sound systems in Sunnyside, said too many of his friends don’t take the virus seriously. They continue to get together for carne asada meals and music.

One acquaintance, even after he tested positive for COVID-19, kept putting up social media posts about parties, according to Hernandez.

“A lot of friends, on the weekends still do whatever they want,” Hernandez said. “They are not scared of it.”