Republican leaders began to increase their pushback to Gov. Jay Inslee’s “stay-home” order on Wednesday, even as public health officials continue to say that social-distancing measures are crucial to keeping the spread of the novel coronavirus under control.
On Wednesday, the Republican leader in the state House of Representatives, who’s been supportive of Inslee throughout the crisis, announced his frustration and said he would begin objecting, in some instances, to Inslee’s executive orders. Meantime, the GOP-backed sheriff of Snohomish County announced he would not enforce Inslee’s stay-home directive. A Republican candidate for governor sued Inslee in federal court, arguing the order violates First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, assembly and free speech.
And a Republican representative who had talked about “starting a rebellion” against parts of Inslee’s order drew objections from law enforcement
House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said he was disappointed that Inslee, in his speech Tuesday night, didn’t announce a schedule for when restrictions would begin to be lifted, nor did he say what specific metrics he would be consulting.
“It didn’t seem like a plan,” Wilcox said in an interview. “A plan includes facts, includes targets. He didn’t share any of that.”
Republicans in the Legislature have pushed for Inslee to allow residential construction, elective medical procedures and outdoor activities like hunting and fishing to resume.
Inslee said Wednesday that, depending on data he expects to receive Thursday, he hopes to start easing those restrictions in the next few days. He said that federal standards say that 14 straight days of falling infection numbers is necessary before restrictions are eased, a metric Washington has not yet met.
“I’m afraid the situation is that some folks have decided to follow the siren demands of Donald Trump rather than the health of Washingtonians,” Inslee said. “We don’t want Washingtonians to get sick, that’s what this is all about.”
Wilcox, who has almost uniformly backed the unprecedented actions Inslee has taken to slow the spread of the virus, said he would no longer be so supportive. While he said Inslee has the legal authority to extend his order, Wilcox said he would no longer grant blanket approval — without first conferring with his caucus — to some other minor suspensions of state law that the governor has put in place. Those suspensions, like waiving the one-week waiting period for unemployment insurance, require legislative approval, which, so far, has been granted simply with the approval of both parties’ legislative leaders.
Wilcox said that Inslee’s lack of specificity threatens “the mandate of the public that he needs for truly effective orders now and in the future.
“I am deeply concerned about the fact that he depends on the motivation of everyday citizens to comply and you motivate people by giving them goals and letting them be part of the decision,” Wilcox said. “And we all risk a worse result because he’s not willing to communicate with any precision.”
In Snohomish County, Sheriff Adam Fortney late Tuesday announced that he would not enforce Inslee’s stay-home order because he thinks it violates constitutional rights, a move that was quickly denounced by the county’s executive, prosecutor and public health district.
“The impacts of COVID-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights,” the first-term sheriff, who took office in January, wrote on his campaign’s Facebook page. Sheriff is a nonpartisan position, but Fortney’s campaign was supported by the local Republican Party. Fortney, an avowed defender of gun rights, also complained in his lengthy social-media post that marijuana retailers are considered “essential” businesses and can remain open, while gun shops are not.
Fortney used a news conference Wednesday to pile additional criticism on Inslee, while acknowledging he had never attempted to talk to the governor, the county executive, the county’s elected prosecutor or Snohomish County health officials before offering his critique. All of them responded to his post by urging residents to stay at home.
Functionally speaking, little will change as a result of Fortney’s proclamation. Around the state, enforcement of Inslee’s order has taken the form of guidance and nudges, rather than any official action, even though it is legally enforceable. The Washington State Patrol hasn’t issued a single citation for violations of the order. Neither has the Seattle Police Department. Inslee said there had been only one enforcement action statewide, and that was against a landlord who was threatening tenants with eviction.
“Our best enforcement strategy is engagement and education,” said Chris Loftis, a spokesman for the State Patrol. “This is like most of the laws; it only works if people agree with them.”
Fortney on Wednesday said that Snohomish County deputies have not arrested or cited anyone for violating the stay-at-home or social-distancing orders or for opening a business prematurely, and said they won’t while he remains sheriff.
“We are the Snohomish County sheriff’s office,” he said. “We don’t go around and enforce whether your business is open. We don’t want people out, but we are not going to make a physical arrest.”
Snohomish County Prosecuting Attorney Adam Cornell said he feared Fortney’s comments would be interpreted as license “to willfully and blatantly violate the law.”
“Any attempt to undermine that authority is both irresponsible, unhelpful in these difficult times,” Cornell said. “A violation of the law carries consequences and as county prosecutor I will continue to uphold my oath and exercise my prosecutorial discretion.”
Fortney, at his news briefing, dismissed any suggestion that his comments might lead to civil unrest. “I don’t think we’re anywhere near that,” he said.
Meanwhile, the State Patrol on Wednesday announced the arrest and criminal charges against a Mill Creek man, Shawn Roland, who is accused of leaving a message threatening to kill Inslee, his staff and “their accomplices” for “violating the constitutional rights of citizens,” said Loftis.
Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers, without mentioning Fortney by name, said prematurely easing restrictions would “be playing Russian roulette with the lives of those we are charged to protect.”
And the Snohomish Health District issued a statement urging residents to “stay the course.”
“We all want to open businesses back up as soon as possible, but now is not yet that time,” health officials wrote. In Snohomish County, 2,188 people have been confirmed to have COVID-19, including 100 who have died, according to figures released Wednesday by the state Department of Health. The new numbers bring Washington’s total number of coronavirus infections to 12,494, including 692 deaths.
Republican Party Chairman Caleb Heimlich declined to take a position on Fortney’s announcement, but said Inslee “is choosing not to lead in a way to bring people together.”
“People want to see direction, they want to see a path out of this,” Heimlich said.
Joshua Freed, a former mayor of Bothell and one of a half-dozen Republican gubernatorial candidates battling to challenge Inslee in the fall, sued the governor in federal court on Wednesday, saying his order banning gatherings has disrupted the weekly Bible study group that Freed holds.
“If a Washington citizen can visit a marijuana shop or grocery store to buy goods in a responsible and socially distanced manner, how are they not allowed to practice faith-based activities and have spiritual fellowship using the same precautions?” Freed said in a news release announcing the lawsuit.
Inslee, in response, said that it’s still too risky for people to gather in groups, even for religious services and that houses of worship across the state have been successful in moving their services online.
He said he is “very confident” that his orders are compliant with the Constitution.
Both Freed and Fortney cited a Sunday protest in Olympia that drew more than 2,000 people, and at which the State Patrol issued no tickets for the mass gathering. Freed attended the rally, as did other Republican candidates and officials. It was part of a spurt of protest nationally, nurtured along by some of the same national conservative groups that helped fuel the Tea Party movement.
The actions of one Republican representative at the rally raise the hackles of law enforcement.
Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, urged those gathered to start a revolt if state officials tried to enforce the temporary ban on recreational fishing.
“You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves,” he said.
Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, president of the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs, wrote to Sutherland asking him to clarify if he was advocating violence against law enforcement.
“We’re out there to save lives and protect and serve, and here he is calling us goons,” Snaza said.
“These ‘goons’ were present during your ‘speech’ protecting your right to assemble and speak,” Lewis County Prosecutor Jonathan Meyer wrote in a letter to Sutherland. “Rhetoric is one thing, inflammatory mindless rhetoric is another and puts people in danger.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan, Jim Brunner, Christine Clarridge and news researcher Miyoko Wolf contributed to this story.