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Regional Interests

Lewis County slams state health department’s lease of Centralia hotel

Local and federal politicians who represent Lewis County, Wash., slammed Washington state officials this week for quietly converting a hotel in Centralia to quarantine and isolate out-of-towners.

The county’s three commissioners called it “shocking and unacceptable,” and U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler told Gov. Jay Inslee in a letter that the state blindsided Centralia residents.

“(The Washington Department of Health) gave the local community virtually no notice and provided no opportunity to comment before opening the facility,” Herrera Beutler wrote on Wednesday.

The place in question is a 40-room hotel called the Lakeview Inn, set between Interstate 5 and Plummer Lake. The state leased it in early May, though neither state officials nor the hotel owner could provide a specific date they signed a contract.

After erecting a fence around the hotel, the state then reopened it for its purposes on May 7. Health officials said the hotel serves people who don’t have a place of their own to quarantine or isolate after they come in contact with COVID-19.

A wide gamut of people could fit that bill, said Cory Portner, a state health department spokesperson: a traveler at SeaTac’s airport who tests positive, a commercial fisherman at a port, or even a prisoner on work release.

The health department then transports them to the Centralia hotel, Portner said. Five people have already quarantined or isolated there.

“They need a place to stay if they do develop symptoms or if they have a concern for quarantining (elsewhere),” Portner said.

But, to local officials, there are still several problems.

City and county officials have vented about a lack of communication from the start. They said they are worried about stressing the local health system. They said the state’s lease takes 40 beds off the market that could go to tourists this summer.

As The Chronicle newspaper first reported, Centralia city officials learned of the facility mere days after its opening. Mayor Susan Luond expressed “deep disappointment in the lack of local engagement,” the newspaper reported.

Lewis County Commissioner Sean Swope said he first heard about the facility three days before it opened.

“The ink had already dried on the contract, they’d already moved in and started converting the hotel. No one knew about it,” Swope told OPB. “They just came in and commandeered the hotel. Paid a sum of money that we don’t know and didn’t go through any zoning, planning or permitting.”

In their letter on Monday, Lewis County’s commissioners stated Providence Centralia Hospital struggled with bed availability. They said people at Lakeview with worsening symptoms could pile on.

Portner noted the state has run its own quarantine and isolation facilities since last spring. It first used Maple Lane, a corrections facility in Thurston County, before moving onto Camp Solomon Schechter in Olympia. Out of roughly 160 people who have used a state-run site, four have required hospitalization.

“At this time, DOH does not believe this poses a significant risk to overwhelming Lewis County’s health care infrastructure,” Portner said.

In an interview, Swope pointed out several other issues. He called the fence an eyesore right off the freeway that would deter drivers from stopping at the local outlet mall. He worried it’s also taking hotel beds offline right as the community’s local economy revives. The commissioner pointed to NW Sports Hub, a sprawling venue for different sporting events, regularly hosts tournaments in the summer.

“That’s the big draw. Every weekend right now, we’re full. That place is hopping. We’ve got people coming in from all over,” Swope said. “This is a hotel that’s basically getting taken out of commission.”

Herrera Beutler also called on the state to answer questions about why the state didn’t give more notice or open discussions. She also asked to learn more about how they picked the hotel.

Portner declined to speak to the specific questions.

Sher Singh, the hotel owner, said the state reached out to him in April as their lease with Camp Solomon Schechter expired. The state had considered a dozen other properties in Thurston and Lewis counties, a health official said.

Singh said he understood local officials’ frustrations but said leasing the space was a greater good.

“I believe it is a once-in-a-century disaster that has overtaken humanity and it deserves an equally larger-than-life response,” he said.

The state’s contract books all 40 rooms in the hotel, Singh said. After signing the contract, the hotel’s three workers are receiving payment and aren’t working at the hotel unless an on-call issue arises, he said. He noted there have been no issues. He declined to say how much the state paid in the contract.

Anecdotally, Singh said hotels in Lewis County haven’t been booming — not yet. He said business has been picking up in recent months but added there are still plenty of hotels to meet travel demands.

“You can tell by looking at the hotels and motels. When you’re in business, you see the competition all the time,” Singh said. “They are not 100% full. There’s enough occupancy.”

Swope said local leaders plan to keep pushing the state Department of Health to move elsewhere. He said they are looking into taking legal action against the state and Singh.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting