Coronavirus cast a pall over the March 17 meeting of the Pierce County Council. In compliance with social distancing efforts to keep the virus from spreading, councilmembers Pam Roach and Connie Ladenburg attended via phone. Those physically present for the meeting included Chair Douglas Richardson, Dave Morell, Marty Campbell and Derek Young, spaced several feet apart from each other. Councilmember Jim McCune was not in attendance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic – also known as COVID-19 and first identified in Wuhan, China, late last year – dominated the agenda in the form of Proposal No. 2020-35, an emergency ordinance amending the 2020-21 biennial budget and declaring urgent priorities in dealing with coronavirus, which passed 6-0.

The proposal provides funds for the Emergency Food Bank, an independent nonprofit organization serving Pierce County, and sheltering of the homeless money from the Homeless Document Recording Fee Fund, in the amount of $250,000 each.

Pierce County Finance Director Gary Robinson described the moves as a reallocation of resources to meet the coronavirus crisis.

“It’s not tapping into the reserves that we’ve set aside that we would draw upon for cash flow purposes,” he said, in referencing vacancy savings that will be put to use in supporting food banks throughout Pierce County. “But given the likely downturn in our economy, our resources would be available to cover any shortfall in revenues.”

Likewise, he indicated the money to pay for homeless sheltering comes from a fund balance in a dedicated account.

“So, not an account that is coupled with the general fund,” Robinson said.

Food bank representatives were on hand to bring home the gravity of the situation likely to be caused by the havoc wrought by the coronavirus.

Michelle Douglass, chief executive officer of Emergency Food Network estimates a four- to six-fold increase on the demands of food pantries due to people losing their jobs.

“We just want to let you know the current need is unprecedented,” she said.

Executive Director Sue Potter of Nourish Pierce County – a food bank and food distribution charity based in Tacoma – echoed her colleague’s comments, noting the organization is already spending an extra $10,000 in initial costs to meet a rising demand, which she predicts will increase by $25,000 to $40,000 per month.

“It won’t just help Nourish,” she said of the emergency legislation, “but the entire food security network of Pierce County.”

Councilmembers acknowledged this is just the beginning of assistance that will be provided at the county government level.

“This is step one,” Marty Campbell said. “This is food and shelter.”

Filling the gaps as needed is a priority for the council, he indicated.

“We need to be sure we’re looking at this holistically,” Campbell said.

“Frankly, I wish we could do more,” Derek Young said. “But this is a great first step.”

He put the challenge in perspective.

“It’s rare that government literally seizes up an economy on purpose,” he said, a reference to daily life grinding to a halt across America in an attempt to get the coronavirus under control so as not to overwhelm the nation’s health care system. “The only other time I can point to in the last couple of centuries is the Spanish flu pandemic.”

The emergency ordinance also reviews District and Superior Court operations for options, including Night Court, to address the backlog resulting from the suspension of jury trials, with court administrations reporting back by April 13; accelerates the completion date of the Broadband Study in an attempt to improve online access and thus communication; and an immediate suspension of data collection requirements on 38 food banks.

In other business, the council passed two ordinances: Proposal No. 2020-20, declaring county-owned property at 15518 100th Ave. East, in Puyallup, as surplus property; and Proposal No. 2020-21, approving the revision of the corporate boundary of Buckley.

Richards indicated he would sign a letter from the council to Washington state’s congressional delegation in support of passage of an $8.3 billion funding bill to address the coronavirus crisis.

“I think they need to hear from us, basically,” he said.