To combat the novel coronavirus, Gov. Jay Inslee is ordering Washington residents to stay at home, except for crucial activities.
Residents can still leave to buy groceries, seek medical care and go to work at essential businesses, Inslee said in a live televised address Monday evening, and they can still engage in outdoor activities that can be done 6 feet away from others, such as walking and biking.
But the new order requires the closure of nonessential business places and, the governor said, “is enforceable by law,” though broad crackdowns by officers aren’t expected.
“This is a human tragedy on a scale we cannot yet project,” Inslee said of the pandemic. “It’s time to hunker down in order to win this fight.”
The stay-at-home order goes into effect immediately and will last for a minimum of two weeks, the governor said. It bans all gatherings for social, spiritual and recreational purposes, whether organized by public or private groups. That includes weddings and funerals. Any nonessential businesses still operating must close in 48 hours, though remote work can continue.
“This does not mean you cannot go outdoors, if you feel like going for a walk, gardening or going for a bike ride,” Inslee said in remarks that lasted about 13 minutes. “We just all need to practice social distancing of at least 6 feet.”
Inslee had previously ordered school closures and pleaded with Washington residents to stay at home, and said he had hoped a mandate would not be necessary. “But I have heard from health professionals, local officials and others that people still aren’t practicing these precautions,” he said. “If you want to have parties on the beach or play pickup basketball at the park or have sleepovers, these are no longer allowed for at least a couple weeks.”
The governor is not yet asking law enforcement agencies to actively enforce his stay-at-home order, King County Sheriff Mitzi Johanknecht said in a statement, “and we see no need to do so.” Johanknecht’s deputies will take “an educational approach” if they see banned gatherings, she said.
Washington State Patrol Chief Jon Batiste said in a briefing Monday night “the goal isn’t to make arrests.” However, David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, said the governor would not hesitate to demand enforcement actions “if we get continuing reports” about people gathering in defiance of the order.
Washington’s definition of “essential business” is modeled on lists developed by the federal government and by California. Restaurants will be allowed to offer take-out and delivery, and supermarkets, pharmacies, food banks, convenience stores, banks and laundromats will be allowed to remain open, among other establishments. Critical manufacturing plants, government operations and communications services – including the news media – also are exempt.
Still, a range of activities will be shut down, such as construction on buildings not considered essential. That includes KeyArena, which has been undergoing a renovation for professional hockey, and commercial office towers going up around Amazon’s campus in South Lake Union, according to the governor’s office.
Inslee said the decision was difficult and acknowledged the move would “add to the economic and family hardship that many in our state are already feeling.” But he argued the order was the best choice. “The fastest way to get back to normal is to hit this hard,” he said, describing social distancing as “the only weapon against this virus.”
Asked to name nonessential businesses that must legally close now, Lisa Brown, director of the state Department of Commerce, mentioned nonvital main street retailers, such as stores selling musical equipment.
The governor’s action came the same day that Boeing announced it would suspend its Puget Sound manufacturing and maintenance operations for two weeks, beginning Wednesday, after a worker at the company’s Everett plant died from a COVID-19 infection, the illness caused by the coronavirus.
Inslee’s order followed a wave of similar decrees by states including California, New York and Oregon and by some Washington cities, including Everett and Edmonds, which have in the last few days ordered residents to stay home and shut down some nonessential businesses.
The global pandemic has been especially severe in Washington, which had the first reported outbreak in the U.S., and had 2,221 known cases and at least 110 deaths as of Monday afternoon.
In response, Inslee had issued an escalating array of orders banning large public gatherings, had prohibited sit-in dining at restaurants and had urged residents to voluntarily self-isolate as much as possible. On March 12 he ordered public schools in three counties to close. Then, a day later, he ordered all K-12 schools statewide to close through April 24.
Yet as of last week, he had said it was not yet time to order Washingtonians to remain at home.
On a conference call with news media Monday, Postman said the order has been in the works for a while, and his office has been making calls and getting input from leaders of businesses, unions and local officials.
The governor had faced increasing pressure to impose more forceful measures amid reports that some people have been ignoring public health warnings and continuing to gather close to each other at some parks and beaches.
Earlier Monday, Rick Hicks, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 174, blistered Inslee in an open letter, saying the delay in a strict stay-at-home order risked the health of union workers who deliver groceries, UPS packages and work in sanitation and law enforcement.
Last week, Judith Malmgren, an affiliate assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, said she favored immediately implementing a shelter-in-place order for King County.
Inslee cited traffic data last Friday as evidence that residents in some parts of Washington weren’t taking his pleas to stay home seriously enough, lamenting relatively modest reductions on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and along State Route 167.
Traffic dropped on those toll corridors and on most others across the state over the weekend. But the reductions apparently didn’t adequately reassure the governor.
State law gives Inslee broad authority to issue a stay-at-home order, University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer said.
An emergency statute says the governor can prohibit “any number of persons … from assembling or gathering on the public streets, parks or other open areas of the state, either public or private.” It also says he can ban the sale of goods. There’s even a catch-all provision that says he can bar “other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited.”
The governor’s powers “are very, very strong, and they’re meant to be strong, because they’re really for significant emergencies — everything from wars, to riots to epidemics,” Spitzer said.
Washington’s emergency law says a person who refuses to leave public property when directed by an official to do so would be guilty of a misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A person who willfully violates an emergency order would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.
In New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week issued a stay-at-home order, New York City Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said making arrests would be “a last resort.”
“We expect everyone in our state to comply with these orders voluntarily … because everyone knows that all of our loved ones are at risk,” Inslee said Monday. “But make no mistake, this order is enforceable by law.”
In Seattle, where playgrounds and sports courts were closed Friday, police officers used loudspeakers over the weekend to remind people to keep their distance, warning that lack of compliance could result in parks being closed and people being prosecuted for trespassing.
The officers and Seattle Parks and Recreation workers noticed that people “immediately understood and complied,” said Kelsey Nyland, spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan.
There were fewer people at windy Magnuson Park in Seattle on Monday than over the weekend. But the stretch alongside Lake Washington was still very much in use.
Frank Kaplan, packing up his windsurfing equipment, was skeptical about the prospect of a stay-at-home order. “You can’t really expect people to stay indoors,” Kaplan said. “We should be allowed to get some exercise. We need community.”
Walking his dog, Henry Ou said the more stringent move was likely needed. His family picked Magnuson partly because Green Lake Park has been so crowded. “Maybe 5 or 10% more people will take this seriously,” he said.
At a Seattle City Council briefing Monday morning, Councilmember Tammy Morales said she was concerned about people who don’t speak English and in marginalized communities, who may not be getting as much information about emergency actions. Those people could be at risk for enforcement “because they don’t know that information,” she said.
There is some evidence that steps Washington has already taken to limit physical interactions have slowed the growth of new infections. The number of new, confirmed cases reported each day by the state Department of Health (DOH) has been rising steadily, but not at the exponential pace of places like Italy and New York City.
A week ago, the state reported 135 new, confirmed cases. On Monday, the state reported 225. Testing in the state has increased from a little over 2,000 a day a week ago, to around 4,000 a day now, while the percentage of positive tests has remained steady, according to DOH numbers. The rate of positive tests has fluctuated between 5% and 7.5% for the last 10 days.
Inslee began his speech Monday by acknowledging lives already lost, telling viewers, “Our hearts ache for all of the Washingtonians and their families affected by the virus.” In closing, he sought to convey a sense of hope.
“This is temporary,” the governor said. “Schools will reopen; weddings will happen; factories will start again; and you can toast the end of this at your favorite hangout. But every single Washingtonian must enlist themselves in this tumultuous struggle.”
Seattle Times staff reporters David Gutman and Christine Clarridge contributed to this report.