OLYMPIA — If Washingtonians think about official state emergencies, they’d probably recall specific events. Big storms. Wildfires. The Skagit River I-5 bridge collapse. The Oso mudslide.
But this week, Gov. Jay Inslee used the emergency powers granted his office in a way Washingtonians haven’t seen in recent memory — if at all.
Inslee on Wednesday announced restrictions on gatherings of more than 250 people across King, Pierce and Snohomish counties to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. The order, Inslee said, would lead to the cancellation of concerts, sporting events, large church services, conventions and festivals.
The day before, Inslee placed restrictions on visitors entering long-term care facilities to protect people most vulnerable from COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.
Emergency proclamations are issued pretty routinely in response to natural disasters, and often “primarily to access federal funding,” according to Everett Billingslea, who worked for several years in former Gov. Gary Locke’s administration.
But the coronavirus response is very different.
“It looks like real emergency power,” said Billingslea, who served as Locke’s general counsel, or top lawyer.
Billingslea and another former top government lawyer say the Washington constitution and state law give Inslee broad and clear authority to restrict gatherings.
The state constitution, he said, gives “really broad and high-level authority” for the Legislature to grant the governor’s office sweeping emergency powers.
“And they did,” said Billingslea, referring to the Legislature. “A long, long, long time ago.”
Much of that authority is found in state law describing the governor’s powers once she or he declares a state of emergency, he said.
Among other things, that law allows the governor to set curfews, and restrict gatherings on public streets, in parks — and in other areas that are either private or public.
The statute goes even further and grants the governor power over “such other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.”
Declaring a state of emergency also allows for more authority to use the National Guard to help out, and to streamline regulations that might impede government’s response, according to Nick Brown. Brown served as Inslee’s general counsel from 2013 to mid-2017.
Brown described the coronavirus as “undoubtedly more complex” than a standard emergency.
For instance, the 2013 I-5 Skagit bridge collapse was “very narrow” in terms of where it took place, he said.
The Oso landslide was a bigger disaster — it killed 43 people in Snohomish County in 2014 — but still confined to a relatively narrow geographic area and event.
In contrast, “I don’t think any governor has limited people’s ability to socialize” in modern times, said Brown.
“My experience with Gov. Inslee is he’s led by data and science, and if experts in these fields are saying that’s best, then that’s what he’s doing,” Brown added.