Gov. Inslee says ‘mandatory measures’ under consideration to combat coronavirus in Washington

This image is currently not available
Gov. Jay Inslee gives updates on COVID-19 last week in Olympia. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Since the novel coronavirus emerged as a threat in Washington, officials have sought to keep people here from infecting each other by offering advice, health care and other assistance. What they haven’t yet done to slow the spread of the virus is tell residents what they can and can’t do.

That could change at some point, however.

Officials are considering mandatory measures for social distancing as part of the state’s effort to combat the outbreak, Gov. Jay Inslee said Sunday.

Inslee didn’t disclose many details about the actions being contemplated but did say “social activities” could be curtailed.

“I’m going to a meeting in about an hour about this subject right now,” he said in an interview on the CBS show “Face the Nation.”

The governor joined state Department of Health officials, local health officials, mayors and others Sunday to discuss possibilities, spokeswoman Tara Lee said. Officials aren’t yet ready to share information on options, she said.

“These are multi-jurisdictional decisions and they are complicated,” Lee said in an email, adding, “We do not have decisions yet and nothing will be finalized today.”

Health officials reported at least 136 coronavirus cases in Washington as of Sunday, including 19 deaths. King County has seen 17 deaths, including two more announced Sunday, and Snohomish and Grant counties have each seen one.

Of the state’s fatalities, 16 have been associated with Life Care Center of Kirkland, according to a statement from Public Health – Seattle & King County.

The public health agency has recommended that people over 60 years old, people who are pregnant and people with underlying health conditions, including weakened immune systems, stay at home. The agency also has recommended frequent hand washing, telecommuting and canceling gatherings.

Ann Marie Kimball, a University of Washington emeritus professor of epidemiology, said she doesn’t expect local officials to order sweeping restrictions on movement and activities any time soon and doesn’t expect them to enact any mandatory measures until more data is available.

The widespread testing that will help officials understand the scope of the outbreak has only just begun, Kimball noted.

“You need more data,” she said. “We’re going to find out in the next couple days … Then you can make some decisions about social distancing and mandatory measures.”

Yet a former U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner said it’s likely that extraordinary maneuvers will become necessary.

“I think no state and no city wants to be the first to basically shut down their economy. But that’s what’s going to need to happen,” said Scott Gottlieb, who led the FDA from 2017 to 2019 and who appeared on “Face the Nation” after Inslee. “States and cities are going to have to act in… the national interest right now to prevent a broader epidemic.”

“Face the Nation” host Margaret Brennan questioned Inslee about the possibility that Washington could adopt lockdown requirements like those advanced this weekend in Italy, where the prime minister has signed a decree placing many provinces under travel restrictions, shuttering movie theaters and museums and closing sports events to the public.

“Have you contemplated shutting it down?” Brennan wondered.

“Well, we don’t use that kind of language, but we certainly are contemplating requirements for what we call social distancing in the public health realm,” Inslee replied.

We are looking at extending what are voluntary decisions right now. And we’ve asked a whole host of communities to consider whether you really need to have your events right now, and they are being canceled,” he added, citing Emerald City Comic Con.

“We are contemplating some next steps, particularly to protect our vulnerable populations and our nursing homes and the like. And we are looking to determine whether mandatory measures are required.”

Washington residents have “responded very well” thus far by listening to public health officials, telecommuting and staying home when sick, the governor said. “But we may have to go to the next step. We are thinking about those seriously to get ahead of this curve.”

The “next step,” Inslee said, could involve “reducing the number of social activities that are going on.” That could be hard on residents, but the state’s infection rate may climb, he said.

“We need to anticipate that wave, get ahead of it,” he added. “We are thinking about stronger measures right now.”

Washington, King County and Seattle all have declared states of emergency in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Seattle’s emergency declaration has given Mayor Jenny Durkan the ability to bypass regulations usually required for spending, contracting, borrowing, temporary hiring and siting facilities.

Under state law, Inslee could cancel large public and private gatherings. He also could set a curfew banning people from being out in public during certain times, prohibit the use of certain streets and highways, and bar the sale of items that could endanger the health of Washington residents. Anyone violating such orders could be found guilty of a gross misdemeanor.

Seattle law says Durkan could have the authority to close streets and businesses, cancel events, set curfews and enact price controls, though she didn’t reference those powers in her emergency proclamation.

The Mayor’s Office didn’t have any news on that front to share Sunday, Durkan Chief of Staff Stephanie Formas said in an email.

“The mayor is working closely with public health officials, local officials and state leaders to discuss current and future community mitigation strategies,” Formas said.

Kimball, the UW expert, said she doesn’t think Inslee and Durkan will try to impose drastic strict measures like those adopted in Italy and China, where the outbreak began.

“We don’t do that kind of thing here. Also, it’s pretty unenforceable,” she said. “You could close things down. There’s certainly that capacity under an emergency declaration. But what we’ve seen is a city, county and state response being guided by data, and I think that will continue.”

Officials could try to cancel large events like Saturday night’s Sounders soccer game but “would have to justify that,” Kimball said. During the Spanish flu pandemic 100 years ago, “theaters were closed and that was not popular,” she said.

“To cancel a Sounders game … you’d want to have your data aligned and you’d want to have a strong rationale,” she said.

Gottlieb, the former FDA commissioner, said regions hit hard by coronavirus may need to choose public health over economic continuity. Such areas should “close businesses, close large gatherings, close theaters, cancel events,” he said.

Those areas should receive financial assistance, he added, suggesting a “big federal bailout package here for stricken businesses, individuals, cities and states.”

Federal testing protocols initially hampered Washington’s response, but the state is now receiving more help from President Donald Trump’s administration, Inslee said on CBS.

“They’re restocking our stockpile of protective equipment and medical supplies. We’ve had hundreds of thousands of new pieces of [protective equipment and medical supplies] come in the last couple of days,” he said.

More must be done, however, the governor said, calling on the feds to certify independent laboratories and “mobilize our manufacturing capacity to do protective equipment” in a push akin to “what we did in World War II to mobilize that supply chain.”

Trump called Inslee a “snake” on Friday when asked about Vice President Mike Pence’s visit to Washington state last week. The governor Sunday described the remarks as “background noise.”

“I really don’t care too much what Donald Trump thinks of me. And we just kind of ignore that,” he said. “We really need to work together, Republicans and Democrats. This is a national crisis.”

Citing a Seattle Times watchdog report, Brennan questioned Inslee about him and the Legislature allowing the state’s public-health system for years to remain understaffed and underfunded.

“We’ve had a lot of things to do in the state of Washington, including financing our schools,” the governor said. “Our public health system has remained stable while I have been governor.”

Seattle Times staff reporters Elise Takahama and Jim Brunner contributed to this story.

More on the coronavirus outbreak

Daniel Beekman: 206-464-2164 or dbeekman@seattletimes.com; . Seattle Times staff reporter Daniel Beekman covers Seattle city government and local politics.