YAKIMA – Several hundred people gathered May 1 on a lawn near the county courthouse to call for the easing of stay-at-home restrictions imposed by Gov. Jay Inslee. They stood shoulder to shoulder, many not wearing masks. They carried American flags and a yellow one that declared “Don’t Tread on Me.”

“Most of us just want to get on with our lives… Nobody is asking for anything special. Go back to work,” declared Jason White, a Yakima city councilman who  has garnered support from some local business owners with strident calls to get their doors reopened to customers.

Days later, a rebellion of a different sort unfolded as some 50 men and women walked off the job Thursday at an apple packing plant north of Yakima. They cited a scarcity of masks, and bore placards crafted from cardboard boxes calling for hazard pay as they labor through the pandemic.

These two protests reflect the escalating tensions in a Central Washington county that has emerged as a key battleground in ongoing state efforts to combat the coronavirus pandemic. Cases here have surged in recent weeks amid growing unease in the agricultural workforce and vocal protests against Inslee’s policies.

Yakima’s economy is dominated by agriculture, an essential industry that, for the most part, has kept operating this spring and thus transformed thousands of employees, many of whom labor close together in packing plants, into front-line workers.

“Until this is over, we are just asking for $2 an hour more,” said a young worker at the Allan Brothers apple packing plant and warehouse operation, the site of Thursday’s protest. She makes $13.85 an hour to help support her son, mother and little sister. She asked to remain anonymous for fear of workplace retaliation.

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Yakima County has the highest per capita rate of the COVID-19 disease in Washington as well as Oregon and California. That rate of more than 650 cases per 100,000 residents as of Friday is more than twice the statewide average, and in some lower-income Latino neighborhoods, where many work in agriculture, the rates range even higher, from 950 to 1,200 per 100,000, according to a map published by the health district. While COVID-19 hospitalizations have been declining throughout much of the state, they have been on the rise this past week in Yakima, and positive test rates of more than 20 percent are nearly triple the state-wide average.

The Yakima Health District’s case tracing has identified significant outbreaks among employees in the agriculture and food industry that involved, as of April 29, more than 190 workers in more than a dozen businesses across much of the county, according to a document released under a public-disclosure request. A Toppenish meat packing plant, Washington Beef, topped that list with 50 cases, but most of the other employers on the list are involved in growing and processing fruit, an industry that will soon be ramping up into much higher gear as many more workers arrive for the cherry harvest starting in June.

“We’re seeing some more spikes in cases in the past few days,” said Dr. Teresa Everson, health officer of the Yakima Health District. “We’re a little bit of a model of what it looks like when you have a lot of the population going off to the workplace. We never got to low mobility.”

County public health officials have been visiting growers and processors to advise them on safety regulations that require social distancing or other protective measures. On Friday, they visited the Allan Brothers plant, which as of Friday had 14 positive cases.

Miles Kohl, Allan Brothers’ chief executive, said he asked for the additional scrutiny, and says he got good reviews about the precautions taken to date.

After weeks of waiting, long-delayed shipments of masks and face shields have arrived, and Kohl said they would be distributed. Kohl said he would like to pay employees more but these are tough financial times with poor markets. No decision has been made on the employees’ request for a $2-an-hour raise.

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“The broader society needs to realize that this food on the retail shelf comes at a price,” Kohl said.

Nursing homes remain a concern

In Yakima, the coronavirus gained strength in late March at a time when the Puget Sound region already was deep into the pandemic. As in King County, major outbreaks early on were centered in assisted living facilities and nursing homes, and they remain a focal point of pandemic.

Some 200 patients in Yakima County residential care facilities have tested positive, and they account for 40 of the county’s 58 deaths as of Friday, according to Dr. Eric Chyn, the clinical director of senior residential care for Community Health of Central Washington, which contracts to provide care in the nine county nursing homes. Also, more than 100 workers in these facilities have tested positive, many of those low-wage employees involved in often intimate tasks such as bathing, changing and feeding patients.

“I wouldn’t be able to care for these patients without their help. They have put their lives on the line and I’m very grateful,” Chyn said.

As the coronavirus took a deadly tolls in Puget Sound’s care facilities, Chyn said he worked with Yakima County nursing homes to prepare for COVID-19. Those efforts included meeting with families of residents to determine what type of care they wanted their loved one to receive should they become stricken with the coronavirus. He said that 80 percent of the families chose to focus on making the patient as comfortable as possible at the nursing homes with morphine, oxygen therapy and other treatments, rather than trying to go through intensive care and possible intubation on ventilators at hospitals.

“They were very happy to be involved in the process. It gave them a sense of control,” Chyn said.

In the Yakima County nursing homes, the pandemic continues to take a toll. Chyn is hopeful that additional protective measures, which include new personal protective gear provided by the state to be worn around-the-clock by staff in the nursing homes, will help to curb the spread of the coronavirus in these facilities.

The large numbers of COVID-19 nursing home residents who stayed put help reduced the demands on county hospitals.

Officials at Yakima’s Virginia Mason Memorial hospital report they have had ample capacity to treat COVID-19 patients. But their numbers of patients with suspected and confirmed cases of COVID-19 are on the rise. This week, they reached the highest level yet, and include more Latinos and Native Americans.

“This definitely has us concerned,” said Dr. Nathan Davenport, the hospital’s chief of ambulatory services.

Councilman pushes back

As the novel coronavirus spreads through Yakima communities, White, the city councilman, has spearheaded a vocal opposition to the policies backed by Inslee and county government to try to contain the coronavirus. White, an Army veteran who grew up in a southeast Yakima neighborhood, is convinced that healthy immune systems fortified by vitamins can safeguard people through the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On April 5, he took to Facebook to call on his supporters to take off their masks, get back to work and “Stop living in fear.”

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Plenty of county residents have denounced White’s approach to the pandemic. And his Facebook posting and other inflammatory statements resulted in an April censure by the City Council for violating codes of ethics and principles of conduct.

But the intensification of the pandemic in the county has not changed his message. Protesters at the May 1 demonstration circulated a petition calling for local businesses to reopen. And someone circulated a pamphlet from Liberty State, a secessionist movement.

Afterward, White urged people — via Facebook livestream — to come downtown for a free “parking lot barbecue.”

Public-health and hospital officials have repeatedly sought to counter White’s messages by warning of the ongoing risks.

“Folks are really concerned right now about needing to get back to some semblances of normal, and I really understand that. But the best way forward is to be able to control transmission, and that means staying home when you can,” said Dr. Everson, the health district’s medical officer.

County health officials also are trying to find ways step up the messaging to Latinos. Case mapping shows one hot spot in a swath of neighborhoods that stretches off to the southeast of Sunnyside, a city of some 16,248 where the poverty rate is more than double the statewide average, the median age is under 30, and many residents work in farms, fields and processing facilities.

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In some Sunnyside homes, a quiet struggle against the disease is now being waged. A 64-year-old Latino man who works at Sunnyside’s Ostrom Mushroom Farms has been off work since April 23. At first, he thought his aching bones and chills were just the flu. But he says he tested positive for the coronavirus, as did his 19-year-old son with whom he shares his house. Two weeks later, he still was suffering intense fevers.

“I have a lot of faith, and God willing, I’m going to get better,” he said, requesting that his name not be used due to privacy concerns.

In the weeks ahead, the challenges of curbing the virus in Yakima County will increase as more seasonal workers converge here. In the Allan Brothers packing house, plexiglass barriers have been installed between work stations, and management is trying to enforce social distancing in a lunch room by restricting seating at tables.

But workers are frustrated by the long wait for masks. And a petition with more than a 100 signatures asks for bonus pay and assurances of a 40-hour workweek, rather than the more limited schedules that many now have. “If that won’t happen, then the warehouse should close for a while so that we won’t be exposed so much,” the petition states.

Kohl, Allan Brothers’ chief executive, said workers’ hours were reduced during the pandemic due to weak sales and the need to spend time deep-cleaning the facility, and he hopes to offer compensation for some of this lost time.

On Friday, Kohl suspended operations for two days and met with some employees.

“Basically, I did a lot of listening. I think that is really important in this time,” Kohl said. “I tried to look at this from the standpoint … of how can we get through this together.”

 

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Seattle Times reporter Manuel Villa and the Yakima Herald-Republic contributed to this report.