In a sign of mounting frustration over Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions, more than 1,500 people urged state lawmakers to support a bill that would speed the reopening of businesses and put legislators, not Gov. Jay Inslee, in charge of the process.
Of the 1,637 people who signed up for a hearing Wednesday on Senate Bill 5114, all but 89 registered support for the measure.
Backers say that lopsided result reflects rising impatience with Inslee’s reopening strategy, Healthy Washington-Roadmap to Recovery, which critics say is unjustified by public-health data and is moving too slowly to save many restaurants, gyms and other closed or partially closed businesses.
Wednesday’s turnout “should be sending a message that people want to find the [reopening] path that saves the businesses and protects public health,” said state Sen. Mark Mullet, D-Issaquah, a co-sponsor of the bill, after the hearing. Business owners are “being harmed and they don’t know what to do about it,” added Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, another co-sponsor.
But other lawmakers downplayed the show of support for the measure, which they said had been partly orchestrated by industry groups. Opponents also said the bill ignored the risks of rising coronavirus infections. “Frankly, I line up the groups that like to follow the scientists more than just a wave of emotion,” said state Sen. Sam Hunt, D-Olympia, chair of the State Government & Elections Committee that held Wednesday’s hearing.
SB 5114, which is co-sponsored by 14 Republicans and two Democrats, is one of a handful of bills to push back on Inslee’s authority over the state’s COVID-19 response, much of which has been implemented via emergency proclamation.
Under SB 5114, the state would immediately move into the less restrictive Phase 2 of the governor’s plan; for example, that would allow restaurants, which now face a ban on indoor dining, to operate at 25% of indoor capacity.
SB 5114 would also shift authority for the state’s reopening strategy to the Legislature, which would “regularly review the best available public-health data to determine” whether counties should move to more or less restrictive phases, according to a Senate bill report.
Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk said in an emailed statement that “the governor’s appropriate use of his emergency authority has saved lives.”
“Debates over this kind of legislation need to take into account all the potential unintended consequences that could come with complicating the state’s ability to respond appropriately to protect lives,” Faulk added.
Not all of those who signed up to speak Wednesday intended to offer testimony during the hourlong hearing, and only a small fraction were able to speak. But even the limited testimony showed some of the breadth of public sentiment on the issue.
Speakers ranged from nurses and public-health officials, who largely opposed the bill, to industry lobbyists and small business owners, who argued in the bill’s favor.
“The shutdown has been costing us over $120,000 a month,” said Dannielle Knutson, owner of three Olympia restaurants. “Every day we are not open, we are continuing to pile on more and more debt in our businesses, as well as my personal life.”
Several business owners spoke of having to shut down or partly shut down multiple times in response to changing state regulations.
Blair McHaney, president of the Washington Fitness Alliance and owner of two Wenatchee-area gyms, said that since the start of 2020, his clubs “have operated at 11 weeks of full capacity, 37 weeks at zero, five weeks at 25% and now 10 days at 10%. We had nine months of no revenue, and yet our expenses don’t stop.”
Opponents of the bill, though heavily outnumbered by supporters, also made their case forcefully.
“With … hospitalizations rising, we do not believe the state is ready to move forward,” warned Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID response at the state Department of Health. SB 5114 “goes too fast without any health data to support” reopening at that rate.
That concern was echoed by Kat Wood, a “front-line health-care worker” at St. Joseph Medical Center in Tacoma, who feared the bill could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases similar to what occurred after Thanksgiving. “If we open the state too early, it will open the floodgates to my hospital and [could] overwhelm me and the caregivers I work with.”
Prospects for SB 5114 remain uncertain. Hunt acknowledged the challenges small businesses face under the restrictions, but said the Senate bill and a companion measure in the House lacked sufficient support from lawmakers and are “certainly crossways with what the [Inslee] administration is doing.” Both the state House and Senate have Democratic majorities.
But Braun and Mullet, a pro-business Democrat, said SB 5114’s main goal is to pressure Inslee to compromise on his reopening plan. Braun and Mullet said the hearing’s heavy turnout could also put pressure on Democrat lawmakers to potentially break with Inslee and push for a compromise to reopen businesses faster.
Many Democrats are “trying to have it both ways — they don’t want to split with the governor, but they want to help the restaurants” and other businesses, Braun said. “This kind of forces them to make their decision: Are they going to just blindly follow the governor. Are they gonna look for a way to safely open restaurants.”