After more than a month of business closures throughout the state related to the COVID-19 pandemic, bipartisan pressure is building on Governor Jay Inslee from state lawmakers to reopen the economy as other states in the Western pact have done.
Inslee announced at a May 5 press conference the creation of three advisory groups to help his office in moving forward, while that same day Republican state lawmakers filed a lawsuit against his extended “stay-at-home” order and three Democrat state lawmakers from the Olympic peninsula wrote a letter urging Inslee to speed up his four-phase process.
Under Inslee’s phased reopening plan, certain counties can apply to the state Department of Health (DOH) to enter “Phase 2,” which allows industries such as retail, restaurants, and hair and nail salons to operate. Currently, only 10 of the 39 counties qualify.
However, the May 5 letter from Sen. Kevin Van De Wedge (D-24), Rep. Mike Chapman (D-24) and Rep. Steve Tharinger (D-24) urged Inslee to let Clallam County also apply for Phase 2. According to the letter, the county has the second highest unemployment rate in the state.
“Our offices have been contacted by hundreds of constituents and businesses desperately asking for help. Many of our small businesses are much better prepared to implement safe social distancing than big box retailers.”
The letter adds that many manufacturers in the county are critical to regional employment, and “the loss of any would have devastating long-term consequences in our area.”
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox (R-2) wrote in a May 6 tweet that “I don’t think either group (Republicans and Democrats) buys into the straw-man arguments of lives vs dollars. They know that lives, dreams and institutions are at stake in both directions.”
The lawsuit filed by Republican legislators from Western and central Washington make a separate argument; that Inslee lacks adequate justification for an extended state shutdown. It states, in part: “The Governor has assumed the sole power to determine whether a person in Washington can worship, can peaceably assemble, can work, can build needed housing, can offer living space for rent, can engage in any activity.”
Inslee said at the May 5 press conference that those legislators are “not only short-sighted but dangerous,” adding that “we can’t have a good economy without a healthy Washington.” He maintained that by extending the stay-home order a second outbreak will be averted. “We’re making progress and we don’t want to go backwards on this.”
Yet the lawsuit argues that Inslee has shifted the goalposts for the order from “flattening the curve” of the virus to “the high risk it poses to our most vulnerable populations.”
The lawsuit claims the virus is “a statistically insignificant threat to the health of children, young adults, and healthy adults of middle and even slightly advanced age.” According to data from DOH, 53 percent of COVID-19 deaths have occurred in residents 80 years or older, a demographic that composes 10 percent of all confirmed cases in Washington. Only one percent of deaths have been of residents under the age of 40, and none under the age of 20.
Inslee’s three health advisory groups consist of:
- Public Health and Health Care System, headed by DOH Secretary John Wiesman;
- Safe Work and Economic Recovery, headed by state Department of Commerce Director Lisa Brown; and
- Social Supports, headed by state Department of Social and Health Services Secretary Cheryl Strange.
The three groups include numerous labor union group representatives and a variety of nonprofits and advocacy groups such as Civic Ventures, Campion Advocacy Fund, El Centro de la Raza and Asian Counseling and Referral Service. From the business and industry side, the advisory groups include representatives from the Washington Business Alliance, Avista and Chateau Ste. Michelle.
Not included was Challenge Seattle, an organization headed by former Gov. Christine Gregoire which includes 19 regional CEOS, nor does it include Washington Roundtable; the two groups last week released a joint list of safety and health recommendations for employers when they are able to reopen.