OLYMPIA — At least 1,000 people gathered Saturday at the Washington Capitol campus to oppose Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency orders requiring COVID-19 vaccines for state workers, school employees and some health care workers.
The rally comes as Washington’s hospitals are strained amid a new COVID-19 wave spurred on by the unvaccinated. More than 94% of COVID-19 patients hospitalized here between Feb. 1 and Aug. 3 were not fully vaccinated, state officials have said.
But sporting signs like “Freedom Matters” and “Coercion is not consent,” the crowd — which included city of Seattle and King County workers facing similar mandates — cast their doubts on the vaccines and the mandate.
From a stage erected on the lawn of the Capitol campus, firefighters, teachers and state ferry employees, among others, spoke out against the orders.
Frank Dahlquist, a fire captain who works for King County, predicted the state will lose experienced, and not easily replaceable, firefighters because of the mandates.
“In 2020, we were essential, and in 2021 we’re fired,” Dahlquist told the crowd. “Is that right? Is that right to anybody? Absolutely not.”
Other demonstrators lined the edge of the Capitol campus, waving signs and flags to motorists honking their horns in support.
An Olympia Fire Department ladder truck drove by twice — lights flashing, horn honking — to thunderous cheers.
The ladder truck wasn’t there to support the rally, city spokesperson Kellie Purce Braseth said Monday, and had passed by because calls for service took firefighters along Capitol Way. The city has imposed its own vaccine requirement, she added, which includes an option for employees to get tested regularly if they don’t get the jab.
Saturday’s rally was a fresh show of displeasure of the governor’s vaccine orders — some of the strictest in the nation, if not the strictest.
Governors elsewhere have allowed public workers and health care employees to undergo regular coronavirus testing if they don’t get vaccinated, but Inslee’s order does not give that leeway.
Asked to comment on the rally, Inslee spokesperson Mike Faulk in an email Saturday evening said, “Employees are losing their lives to COVID.”
“Hospitals are filling up. Communities are stressed by the pandemic’s impacts,” added Faulk. “The safest and most effective way to get beyond these tragic circumstances is vaccination.”
Workers at state agencies, schools and universities — as well as hundreds of thousands of employees in long-term care facilities like nursing homes — must be fully vaccinated by Oct. 18 or face losing their jobs. Contractors who work on state job sites also must also follow the order.
The Washington Federation of State Employees on Thursday sued to block the mandate in Thurston County Superior Court, saying the state failed to bargain over the issue in good faith. The lawsuit says allowing the mandate to take effect without an agreement with the union would harm the rights of the union’s members. Inslee’s office says he disagrees.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.