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LISTEN: Pierce County mayors say 'one size doesn't fit all' in phased reopening of economy

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Sumner City Hall

One size does not fit all. That's the message from the mayors of Sumner and Bonney Lake, neighboring communities in eastern Pierce County with a combined population of about 31,000 people. They wrote a joint letter to Gov. Jay Inslee earlier this month asking for a little more leeway in the state's phased reopening plan, especially for small businesses in their communities.

Sumner Mayor Bill Pugh talked more about the plan behind the letter with KNKX All Things Considered host Ed Ronco. You can listen to their conversation above, or read a transcript below. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Ed Ronco, KNKX All Things Considered host: I want to begin with what this letter is not. It is not a protest against the governor's phased reopening, which I understand you support.

Bill Pugh, Mayor of Sumner: I do support what he's done. First of all, thank God I'm not governor. What he is going through right now and trying to deal with this whole historic pandemic is horrific. I think he's doing a good job. It wasn't meant to be "immediately do this." It wasn't a demand. It was a request that, in all their deliberations, that they give some consideration to small business that we felt can operate as safely or maybe even more safe than some of the larger businesses that have opened up.

KNKX: What are you asking for specifically?

Pugh: What we're asking for is that the governor, I think, is given some real thoughtful consideration towards guidance and measures that need to be put in place to operate safely. And that is included occupancy, not wanting to overcrowd a particular space so that you can maintain, and I hate the term social distancing, personal distancing. Things like disinfecting surfaces, etc. Making sure that there is separation between cashiering and the customer with the shields that are up. And then masking. And I've looked at some of the larger big box stores and I've looked at what they've done and they have improved over time. But I see a lot of people in there that aren't masked up. I've seen employees that aren't masked up. And I think there's much more control from a small business standpoint to make sure those type of things happen and we can provide as safe, or even safer, environment in the small stores than we can some of the large enterprises.

KNKX: If the governor said it was OK to do that and reopen businesses immediately with those distancing and safety measures in place, what would you do as mayor if a small business opened but did not follow the rules? Would there be some city responsibility for enforcement there?

Pugh: I think what we've done so far, because we've already been thrown into the middle of it, when we got to what businesses were central. Contact them, encourage them, point to the state guidance. We haven't taken the approach of any requirements or any implications if they don't. But sometimes I think in a smaller community, peer pressure can go a heck of a long way.

KNKX: What are you hearing from the business owners?

Pugh: Well, you know, wondering if they're going to survive. You have the restaurants, which I think almost all of them have gone to the the takeout-delivery combination. And I think they're hanging in there. It's the ones that aren't able to open in any way, shape or form that they don't know how long they can survive. And I appreciate the CARES Act and the Payroll Protection Plan and all of that. Those federal measures. And we appreciate that. But a lot of them weren't able to get the grants. And a lot of them, it's only as good as they can bring back employees so that it doesn't remain a loan and just a debt against the business. And if they can't bring back employees and reopen and stepped in, it doesn't really help.

KNKX: So you've made a request to the governor, along with the mayor of Bonney Lake and other community leaders here in Washington state, in other parts of the country we've heard reports of as well have taken a more strident approach, encouraging businesses to just reopen, in some cases saying they won't enforce the rules. A few have walked that back. Is anyone urging you to be more strident here?

Pugh: Nobody has directly. Maybe in their minds. If they were, I wouldn't oblige that. My approach has been to follow the guidance, to try to change the guidance. If I don't feel that is appropriate or meets our needs, I believe that Pierce County Executive (Bruce) Dammeier is doing a good job and trying to make a case for Pierce County and opening. We have significantly as a county have reduced the case numbers. It's been incredible. Regardless of whether you get to the numbers or not, it still gets to a behavior issue that is a responsibility of everyone. I mean, Sumner is a very walkable community. And you see people out walking quite a bit. They're very respectful of the distancing. And so I look at how people have dealt with it in Sumner, I'm really proud of.

KNKX: I know leaders in some communities along the Washington coast have expressed concerns that even if they're legally allowed to reopen places that are destinations for outsiders, such as the coast, might be swamped by people bringing things in. Is Sumner in that position as well? Are you worried about that?

Pugh: No, I'm not as worried about that. We're not look like an Ocean Shores, you know, a destination for people who are going nuts because they have been in isolation or quarantine or stay-at-home type of thing. In fact, the businesses, if you open them up, and say "what's going to happen?" I'd be happy if there's some people, given the economic times that we're in, would actually go into the stores. You know, it's not like we're gonna have thousands of people show up in downtown Sumner and they're going to jam all the stores. I don't see that taking place.

KNKX: You've been mayor for a few years now. Before that, you were public works director. And I would suspect that when you ran among the many, many things that you considered you'd be doing as mayor, managing something like this was not one of those things.

Pugh: If you're around long enough, you think you have seen it all. And it has totally been a sort of a gut-wrenching feeling when you realize the significance of what we're all facing. And it just isn't Sumner or Pierce County, it's not just Washington, it's not states, it's the world.

KNKX: Mayor Bill Pugh, thank you so much for your time. I really appreciate it.

Pugh: Take care. Be safe.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.