Constituents heard updates from federal and local leaders.

Congressman Derek Kilmer (D-6th) hosted a telephone town hall May 11 to provide an update on the federal government’s response to the coronavirus and answer questions from constituents ranging from why he isn’t a Lakers fan — because of their recent receipt of federal aid intended for small businesses — to clarifying federal strategy to manage rising unemployment.

Kilmer told callers, “Maybe the goal shouldn’t be a return to normal, but rather, perhaps we need a new normal.” In this new normal, “workers shouldn’t have to choose between their paycheck and their health, or the health of a loved one.” 

This new normal would rely more on domestic manufacturing and address housing inequities, he said, which would include access to the internet in rural communities. 

Washington State Secretary of Health John Wiesman confirmed that Washington’s number of coronavirus cases peaked at the end of March and have since plateaued. But there are 200 to 300 new cases reported in Washington per day. “These numbers are still very serious, and they are not coming down as quickly as I’d like to see.” 

Wiesman reported that testing increased in the state from 4,500 tests per day to 6,000. The state has started to open up criteria for testing and will offer more testing opportunities at nursing homes and for health care workers in the near future.

Wiesman said “This virus is really having a toll on folks and it’s going to be felt for a long time even as we get our economy back up and rolling again.” The economic distress “isn’t something that goes away quickly.”

Constituents asked why rural areas of the state have to follow the same rules and phases for returning to regular business activity as more populated areas. 

“We are trying to make sure we do this as safely as possible so that our case counts don’t rebound and so we don’t find ourselves again where we were in early March,” Wiesman said. 

The state started offering a variance in mid-May to counties with a population of 75,000 or less and no reported cases in the preceding three weeks. Eight counties were approved for variance and moved to phase two of the state’s four phase reopening plan, which includes opening business activity in manufacturing, construction, real estate and some hair and nail salons with safety precautions in place.

Wiesman also told callers that the state continues to look into how to physically distance at schools come fall. “Hopefully there is a clearer path for infection control (by then) while offering education as safe as we can.”

Proposed strategies include part-time class schedules with some students arriving in the morning and others in the afternoon, reduced class sizes, or reducing the amount of movement throughout the day for secondary students. All of these plans come with the condition that testing is readily accessible for both teachers and students when they return.

Callers expressed concern about people coming from other parts of the state where cases are higher to those rural counties, putting others at risk. Wiesman said the state has given these eight counties the choice whether they want to go forward with phase two or not. The eight counties must also have in place a testing plan in case of an outbreak in their area as a result of the transition.

Kilmer addressed questions on what he called the “digital divide.” He told callers, “For too long, too many rural communities have been left behind” when it comes to reliable access to the internet. Prior to the pandemic, Kilmer sponsored a bill that intended to help bridge the divide. Now, those inequalities are on display with transitions to online curriculum for students and telecommuting from home.

“Bridging the digital divide isn’t about ensuring whether folks can watch ‘Tiger King’ on Netflix; it’s about ensuring our kids have the opportunity to learn and it’s about giving local employers in areas urban, suburban and rural a shot, and that’s why I’m supporting efforts in that regard to help our students, to help our tribal communities and to help local businesses,” Kilmer said.

As far as federal aid goes, Kilmer said the House is expected to vote on the latest relief package May 16. The legislation was designed to offer financial assistance to state and local tribal governments amounting to $150 billion. It also includes more funding and resources for testing and addresses housing security and student debt. 

As the call progressed, more and more people commented on experiencing “cabin fever.” 

“It’s tricky,” Kilmer said, “because usually I’m the first person to say come to our area and see our parks.” But as the health crisis persists, it is crucial that people help to keep infections down by staying home and staying healthy.

“Right now, it’s really important to listen to science and to listen to public health professionals,” he said.