OLYMPIA — More resources for coronavirus testing and contacting tracing. More state aid for struggling businesses and workers. Getting young children back into school in January, if the public health metrics show it is safe.
Washington’s most powerful business and community leaders are urging Gov. Jay Inslee to take such steps, and more, to better navigate the pandemic.
A six-point plan from the organization Challenge Seattle declared support for the governor’s latest restrictions intended to curb the spread of the virus. But it also offered a glimpse into what top business leaders think should be done differently, or prioritized now.
The letter doesn’t come from your garden-variety community advocacy group. It’s an alliance of the state’s top chief executive officers, including among others the leaders of Microsoft, Boeing, Nordstrom, Alaska Airlines, REI, Starbucks, Weyerhaeuser and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Christine Gregoire, chief executive officer of Challenge Seattle — who also happens to be Washington’s previous governor — didn’t criticize Inslee’s approach and praised his work on responding to the virus.
“We really believe that the governor had to come out and do the kinds of restrictions he’s done to address the health issues,” said Gregoire in an interview. But, “We wanted to raise the issues about the tremendous social impacts and economic impacts and how can we go about mitigating those impacts.”
“We need to respond to the pandemic now, with a sense of urgency, on both public-health and safety,” added Gregoire later. “But also on the social and economic consequences to our community.”
The letter came during the week in which Inslee saw perhaps the biggest pushback against his emergency orders since the original shutdown in March. The governor on Sunday imposed a sweeping new set of orders, that include a halt to indoor dining at restaurants and any indoor gatherings, plus the closure of gyms and movie theaters.
That spurred several Democratic lawmakers this week to make a rare public break with the governor.
The lawmakers — including Sens. Rebecca Saldaña of Seattle, Mark Mullet of Issaquah and Joe Nguyen of White Center — penned a letter urging Inslee to roll back new restrictions on restaurants. Groups like the Association of Washington Business have also expressed concern about the new restrictions.
By Friday, Inslee — after consulting with lawmakers and others — announced a new, larger relief package to help businesses and workers.
Friday’s $135 million package includes the $50 million in business relief that the governor originally announced on Sunday along with his restrictions. That comes from remaining funds on hand from the federal virus aid package approved by Congress this spring, known as the CARES Act.
The new package now includes $70 million in grants to help small businesses — up from the original $20 million — as well as loans for businesses. It also includes $20 million in residential rental assistance and $15 million in aid for households affected by the pandemic to help pay utility bills.
Asked about some of Challenge Seattle’s proposals, Inslee in his news conference said he hadn’t looked at the letter, but “those measures all sound reasonable.”
The state is working on improvements to boost the efficiency of contact tracers — who reach out to infected people, checking on their close contacts in an effort to stem outbreaks, said Inslee. More contact tracers are becoming available soon in King County and other areas, he added.
The Challenge Seattle letter also urges the state to get younger students, like those in K-5, back in school in January, if public-health metrics show it is possible.
“Studies, including by local experts of global renown, have established that it is possible to reopen schools safely, especially for elementary age students.” according to the letter. “This can lay the foundation for the even broader work that will be needed to address the learning loss of our state’s students, with an emphasis on those disproportionately impacted.”
Also recommended is more resources to help distribute a vaccine when it becomes available, and better and more public data on coronavirus activity, such as positivity rates in hot spots and more detailed figures on hospitalizations.
The governor’s restrictions — and debate over his approach — come as Washington’s cases continue to soar. State health officials Friday reported 2,132 new confirmed cases, as well as 16 deaths. Thanksgiving and holiday gatherings could push numbers even higher.
In her interview — which came before Inslee’s announcement about expanded relief for businesses — Gregoire said the state must not wait on Congress for another virus aid package.
She called it “extremely frustrating” that Congress hasn’t taken action since approving the CARES Act in March.
People are living paycheck to paycheck, Gregoire said, many of whom must go to work outside the home, where they face exposure to the virus.
Inslee has repeatedly said a special session of the Legislature isn’t necessary to authorize any additional spending or make decisions on the virus until legislators return as scheduled in January.
Some Democratic lawmakers — who hold strong majorities in the House and Senate — this week continued to dismiss the idea of a special session.
Rep. Timm Ormsby, D-Spokane and the chief Democratic budget writer in the House, earlier this week brushed off the suggestion of one, after being asked in a news conference whether Washington should follow the steps of Colorado. There, lawmakers and the governor earlier this week announced a special session to debate economic stimulus amid the pandemic.
“I find it interesting but otherwise irrelevant what Colorado is doing,” said Ormsby, adding that he felt the distribution of federal CARES dollars by Inslee has been good. “I think that each of these state economics has their own unique dynamics.”
House GOP Minority Leader. J.T. Wilcox of Yelm said he supported Challenge Seattle’s ideas, and he still wants to see a special session, which Republicans have been calling for since May.
“I think the Legislature could help build confidence” in the state’s virus response, said Wilcox, “if we were part of it.”
An earlier version of this story incorrectly listed Amazon as a member of the organization Challenge Seattle.