OLYMPIA — After hearing complaints many Washingtonians have been ignoring his stay-at-home order, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state will turn up the heat a tad on businesses and individuals — potentially resulting in cases being referred to the state Attorney General’s Office for potential charges.
But before the AG’s office gets involved, Inslee is more forcefully nudging residents and businesses to do the right thing and follow his emergency order to stay home, and practice social distancing when making necessary trips to work and to businesses deemed “essential.”
In a news conference Monday afternoon, Inslee applauded the bulk of Washington residents, businesses and churches who are complying with the stay-at-home order to reduce social interactions and the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. That order allowed businesses like health care facilities, grocery stores and pharmacies to remain open, but temporarily shut down other businesses deemed not essential.
“Unfortunately, we’ve had thousands of calls coming from many places in the state … with reports that some individuals and some businesses are not complying” with the stay-at-home order, Inslee said. “And these people who are calling us are very concerned about their health and the health of others.”
People should not call 911 if their sole complaint is the possible violation of the stay-at-home order. Officials are providing an online complaint form for people to use to alert the state about businesses that aren’t complying.
Inslee said the state will start by reaching out to businesses and others, asking them to voluntarily comply with the order. If that doesn’t work, state regulators could impose penalties against businesses, by citing them or revoking their licenses.
And if those steps don’t work, the governor said cases could be referred to the state Attorney General’s Office for potential civil or criminal charges. Those violating the emergency orders could be found guilty of a gross misdemeanor.
“But taking the people to court is the very last thing that will be considered,” Inslee said.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Bob Ferguson said he is looking into reports landlords are violating an emergency order by the governor that temporarily stopped evictions, a measure designed to help tenants because the economy has slowed.
“My office has received complaints that landlords are attempting to evict tenants in violation of the governor’s moratorium,” Ferguson said. He added some landlords are allegedly “getting creative” to avoid the moratorium. He urged tenants who feel they’re being targeted to contact his office.
Inslee and Ferguson were joined Monday by Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste. Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl appeared by video conference.
After the news conference, Inslee chief of staff David Postman said just a few minutes after the governor started talking, more than 1,000 people had looked at the complaint form online.
Postman said he had heard reports about a small manufacturer, a small construction project and a residential cable provider that didn’t appear to be following the order.
The news conference comes a week after Inslee implemented the statewide stay-at-home order, which came atop other emergency restrictions to slow the spread of illness.
Since many businesses are overseen by state regulators, complaints about them will be routed to the relevant agencies. From there, agency personnel will contact the businesses, according to Inslee’s office, with the goal of getting voluntary compliance.
But enforcement actions will be pursued against businesses that continue to violate the order.
Mylett said he and other law enforcement agencies are receiving reports of people gathering in violation of the stay-home restrictions.
“We’re not arresting people, we’re not citing people, we’re not detaining people,” he said. “Our posture, our role — at this time, anyway — is to inform and educate.”
By the time he issued the stay-at-home order, Inslee had already put in place restrictions on some nonessential businesses, closed schools and banned large gatherings, like sporting events and concerts.
Some data show efforts to slow the spread are working, Inslee said last Thursday, but the stay-at-home order might need to be extended beyond its original two weeks.
But the governor warned troubling signs continue.
He cited a higher-than-usual percentage of some recent COVID-19 tests to come back positive in Skagit, Island, Adams, Benton and Franklin counties.
Some areas that haven’t yet seen many coronavirus fatalities might not be taking the emergency orders seriously enough, he said.
“But it is coming,” Inslee said. “It is coming and people need to understand that.”
The stay-at-home order complaint form can be accessed by going to: https://coronavirus.wa.gov/government-emergency-actions.