The state has fined Yakima Speedway operator Doug Bettarel $2,500 for allowing fans to attend the Fall Classic auto-racing event last weekend in violation of the state’s Safe Start phased reopening from COVID-19.

The state Liquor and Cannabis Board delivered notice of the public-safety violation, which carries a standard $2,500 fine, to Bettarel’s company, B and B Speedway Promotions, on Wednesday. Such a fine is an unusual step for the board to take, Liquor and Cannabis Board spokesman Brian Smith said in a Thursday email. The board’s goal is to educate businesses and help them comply with the restrictions laid out in Gov. Jay Inslee emergency proclamations and his Safe Start plan.

“Very few violations have been issued, reserved for those licensed venues that openly defy the proclamation and potentially threaten public health,” he wrote.

The violation did not result in suspension of the B and B Speedway Promotion’s liquor license.

Yakima County remains in a modified Phase 1 of the state’s four-part reopening plan, which does not allow social gatherings of more than five people. County businesses also are prohibited from admitting customers unless they’re wearing masks.

Bettarel, who owns Better All Auto Sales and has been the track’s sole operator since last year, estimated that 1,800 to 2,000 people attended the Oct. 4 final races after about 500 attended the Oct. 3 preliminaries. Hundreds who attended the Sunday session stayed for a rally in support of Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. Photos from the weekend show the bulk of fans in the stands were unmasked.

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Bettarel had planned to continue hosting public events at the track but changed his mind after asking the board’s enforcement officer what sort of penalties that might elicit. The officer told Bettarel he could face an emergency suspension and, if he violated that, could face criminal charges, Smith said.

That would be too big a risk, said Bettarel, who canceled an event this coming weekend because of it. That event, the International Auto Sound Challenge Association’s DTP Truck Wars, would not have included racing but would have been open to the public. It has been moved to Spokane County Raceway, according to the IASCA website.

“I can muster the money to try to pay the fine,” he said. “But I’m not going to risk them putting the cuffs on me.”

This was the first instance of a sports venue in Washington being fined for hosting a large sporting event, Smith wrote. Several Yakima County fitness businesses were fined by the state Department of Labor and Industries in August for “willful” violations of COVID-19 safety rules, the largest of which was a $38,556 fine levied against Fit City NW LLC for operating three Anytime Fitness locations during the shutdown.

The reason the speedway matter was handled by the Liquor and Cannabis Board rather than Labor and Industries is that investigations into Safe Start violations stem from public complaints to the state’s COVID emergency operations center. That organization farms them out to various agencies based on jurisdiction; because the B and B Speedway Promotions holds a liquor license, enforcement fell to the board.

The agency previously issued Bettarel a verbal warning, Smith wrote. That instance, stemming from a June rally protesting Inslee’s proclamations, drew about 500 people to the speedway but did not result in sanctions.

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Bettarel plans to fight the fine, which he can do either in an informal hearing or an administrative hearing. Although he said the primary reason he sold admission to the event was the $30,000 in debt he’s accrued overseeing an empty venue this year, he also said he disagrees with Inslee’s use of his emergency powers in shutting down business in the state.

“It ain’t about ‘me’; it’s about ‘us,'” he said. “I feel terrible for all the businesses that have closed and all the people who are stuck at home.”

Those struggles notwithstanding, the Yakima Health District condemned such large gatherings this week. Things will only get worse when people insist on gathering in large groups, district health officer Dr. Teresa Everson said.

“We must continue to keep in mind that we have only come this far by following public-health recommendations,” she said this week. “If we become more relaxed, especially attending events with opportunity for large-scale transmission, it is only a matter of time before rates will go up again, putting our schools and businesses in danger of closing again.”