I understand that a lot of folks strongly oppose Washington’s mask mandate, but that’s still no excuse to be rude.
According to a complaint filed with the state’s online portal for reporting coronavirus-related business violations, a customer at the Gold Bar Family Grocer in Snohomish County asked the cashier if she would wear a mask. Her response?
“No, I don’t have to and what are you going to do about it?”
She told him he should shop elsewhere. When the customer, described as an elderly man, told her that this wasn’t possible because he can’t go too far from home, she “just stood there staring at him and said, ‘I’m not wearing a mask,” according to the anonymous complaint. The man left without his groceries.
It’s just one anecdote, but it’s a sign of how tense these times are as we grapple with the COVID-19 pandemic.
The grocery store in Gold Bar ranks among the top businesses in King and Snohomish counties for the number of complaints reported to the state by the public for coronavirus-related violations. Statewide, more than 64,000 complaints were filed from March 25 through Oct. 13. I obtained them through a public-records request with the Emergency Management Division of the Washington State Military, where the complaints are first received.
One Seattle Times reader, who had filed a complaint, asked me if the state actually follows up on these complaints. So I looked into it.
“When complaints come in, they are triaged and provided to the agencies that have the most responsibility in that arena,” said Tim Church, director of communications for Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), which receives a large share of the complaints. Others may go to the Department of Health, the Department of Licensing, the Liquor and Cannabis Board, or other agencies.
The complaints fall into three categories, and each type is handled differently. Some report a violation of the state’s Safe Start plan, which sets guidelines for if and how a business can operate during the phased reopening. Some report violations of the mask mandate, and others detail unsafe conditions for workers in regard to the risk of exposure to COVID-19.
Church says that the complaints funneled to L&I are assessed, and then typically they will contact the business that has been reported to let them know they need to be in compliance. That may be followed up with an in-person spot check.
“In almost all of those cases, we give the business involved every opportunity to be informed and to change their behavior and follow the order, and not be cited or fined,” Church said. And nearly all have complied.
In the early days of the shutdown, most of the violations reported to L&I were for Safe Start violations, Church said. Most of them now are regarding mask complaints.
You may have already heard about the No. 1 complaint recipient, B. Fuller’s Mortar & Pestle, a tea and apothecary shop in the Fremont neighborhood of Seattle. The store went viral on social media in June after it posted a sign on the door asking customers to “Please remove your mask” and calling the state’s response to the coronavirus an “overreaction.”
That kind of thing might go over well in some parts of Washington, but in Fremont? No way. The state received more than 290 complaints. (The store quickly issued an apology on its Facebook page and reversed course.)
Something to keep in mind is that not all complaints filed with the state are valid. The public doesn’t always have an accurate or thorough understanding of the requirements. Some may think a business is in violation when it’s not. Also, a single individual could potentially file multiple complaints about the same business. It’s even possible that people might use the state’s reporting system to target a business that they don’t like for some other reason, unrelated to COVID-19.
That’s what David Israel thinks happened with his business, and No. 2 on the list, CrossFit-Felix. The gym, located in Seattle’s Belltown neighborhood, received more than 180 complaints.
Many allege that it was open and operating when gyms were supposed to be closed, or that there were too many people working out — and some state that they pulled the blinds down to hide what was going on inside. Others complain about people from gym classes running around the block mask-less.
But Israel said that since his gym opened in 2014, he’s had a contentious relationship with tenants at the apartment building next door whose units are rocked by vibrations from dropping weights at the gym. The local news station KING-5 even sent reporters to cover the dispute in 2015.
Israel says he’s followed state guidelines “to a tee” and believes a lot of the complaints are coming from residents of the apartment building. While he acknowledges that some gym attendees may have removed masks when jogging outside, that isn’t something he can control.
Church confirmed that L&I reviewed the complaints about the gym and didn’t find anything that appeared to be a violation.
No. 3 on the list is not a business but events. California-based Christian missionary Sean Feucht held his “Let Us Pray” rallies in a number of cities, in defiance of COVID-19 restrictions. He held two rallies in Seattle — one in Capitol Hill’s Cal Anderson Park and another on the streets of Wallingford (after the city denied him a permit for Gas Works Park). More than 140 complaints were filed, most alleging that very few people were wearing masks and that there was no social distancing.
The Gold Bar store is No. 4, and most of the store’s 100-plus complaints involve a lack of enforcement of the mask mandate for both employees and customers. I spoke with the manager of the store, who declined to comment, and I left a message for the owner, who has not yet responded. But I did find out that the state Liquor and Cannabis Board visited the store 15 times, finding just one mask violation by an employee, which was resolved through education. Other employees not wearing a mask had medical issues preventing them from doing so, according to the agency.
There is only one workplace on the top 5 list. More than 70 complaints were filed by employees at the Boeing Everett Factory, most from around April when the plant reopened. Many state that the plant shouldn’t be operating because building airplanes isn’t essential work. Some express concern that the nature of the work makes social distancing impossible and that a number of employees had been infected with COVID-19.
Church says that L&I opened inspections and gathered information, but found no violations related to coronavirus and took no further action. A Boeing spokesperson said in an email, “We appreciate our teammates’ commitment to staying safe at work and in the community. Throughout the year, their feedback has made a difference to reduce the risk of Covid-19.”
While the state’s system allows those reporting complaints to include their name, 95% of the records are anonymous. And, unsurprisingly, not all of them are serious. Some Washingtonians used the system as a form of protest. More than 800 complaints are directed at Gov. Jay Inslee rather than a business, and not in a nice way. More than 300 use an expletive.
One caveat regarding the data: The complaints contain a lot of typos and spelling errors, name and address variants and missing fields. I “cleaned up” the data as best I could, but I surely missed a few records in my tallies.