Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney said he believes Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order is unconstitutional and he won’t enforce it.
In a post on his Facebook page Tuesday night, Fortney said he was worried about the economy and residents’ ability to make a living.
“I believe that preventing business owners to operate their businesses and provide for their families intrudes on our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” he wrote, paraphrasing the Declaration of Independence. “As your elected Sheriff I will always put your constitutional rights above politics or popular opinion.”
Fortney argued that the stay-home order, which aims to slow the spread of the coronavirus by barring people from gathering, violates Washingtonians’ First Amendment rights to religious exercise and peaceable assembly. He posted on his campaign page, not on an official Snohomish County social-media channel.
The post, Fortney wrote, was prompted by a Tuesday evening news conference in which Inslee laid out a road map for reopening Washington’s economy that could soon allow the return of some elective surgeries, outdoor recreation and construction projects. The governor stressed that the timing of that reopening will depend on the state’s progress on key public-health indicators.
After watching Inslee’s address, the sheriff wrote that he “wondered if he even had a plan.” He said he’d wanted to defy the order two weeks ago but “decided to wait out of respect for the Governor and my own misguided hope that each day he did a press conference he would say something with some specificity on getting Washington back to work. After what I witnessed tonight I can no longer stay silent as I’m not even sure he knows what he is doing or knows what struggles Washingtonian’s (sic) face right now.”
David Postman, Inslee’s chief of staff, said Wednesday that neither Fortney nor Franklin County Sheriff Jim Raymond — who has also refused to enforce the emergency restrictions — have the authority to countermand the state’s chief executive and wonders why they would want to.
“People should not be looking to the sheriff’s Facebook page either for constitutional analysis or health advice,” said David Postman, Gov. Inslee’s chief of staff. “Now is not the time to get distracted or let up on what we’re doing. It’s working.”
In a prepared statement, Snohomish County Executive Dave Somers seemed to push back against Fortney, without explicitly mentioning him. Somers, a fisheries biologist by trade, said that the county has been able to slow the spread of the virus precisely because of the restrictions that have been put in place.
“This isn’t about the opinions of any single elected official,” Somers said. “It’s about the health and safety of all the people we serve – not the few. Snohomish County will continue to make data-driven, science-based policy decisions. Anything less would be a disservice to the residents of Snohomish County and be playing Russian roulette with the lives of those we are charged to protect.”
In Snohomish County, 2,152 people have been confirmed to have COVID-19, including 99 who have died, according to the state Department of Health. Snohomish County is home to the United States’ first known case of the novel coronavirus, a man who was diagnosed in mid-January and has since recovered.
“This is a very serious issue and the appropriate precautions need to be taken to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Fortney wrote. “However, our communities have already shown and continue to show they understand the severity of the situation and are doing all they can already to keep themselves, their families and neighbors safe and healthy.”
However, health officials in Snohomish County on Wednesday issued a statement in response to Fortney’s social media post urging residents to “stay the course” and continue following social distancing and hygiene guidelines contained in the governor’s emergency orders.
“We all want to open businesses back up as soon as possible, but now is not yet that time,” the district said in a statement, noting that “social distancing and temporary mitigation measures will likely be a part of our new normal for months and years to come.”
While the health district works to increase testing capacity and contact tracing of those who are infected, those efforts take time.
“The ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy’ orders are working,” the statement said. “We know they are drastic measures … We must stay the course. For the health of our people, as well as the long-term health of Snohomish County and its economy.”
Fortney cited other sheriffs in Washington state who also won’t enforce the order but didn’t name them.
Raymond, the Franklin County sheriff, has come out against the stay-home order, as have the commissioners of Franklin County, where 207 people have been infected with the coronavirus and four have died.
It isn’t the first time Raymond has refused to enforce a state law he saw as unconstitutional. He and at least a dozen other sheriffs in Washington took a similar stance against Initiative 1639, a gun-safety measure approved by voters in November 2018.
Seattle Times staff reporters Mike Carter and David Gutman contributed to this story.