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Far-right politicians denounce government’s COVID-19 response in Washington, Idaho

Washington state Rep. Matt Shea participates in a rally outside the Capitol in Olympia on Jan. 15, 2020. He’s one of many far-right politicians denouncing economic shutdowns prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic. (Ted Warren / AP)

The police chief in Republic, Washington, has called Gov. Jay Inslee a “would-be dictator.” A Spokane Valley lawmaker has asserted the new coronavirus is a “Chinese Communist Party bioweapon.” And a Yakima city councilman has told constituents to ignore public health advice and return to work.

In North Idaho, one state lawmaker has urged citizens to “push back” against Gov. Brad Little’s stay-home order, and another has flouted the order by holding in-person church services. The Bonner County sheriff has shared a conspiracy theory suggesting “globalist” public health officials are misleading citizens and attempting to destroy small businesses.

The economic shutdowns and social-distancing measures ordered by governors of both parties have drawn heated reactions from far-right officials across the Inland Northwest, including members of the so-called “patriot” movement spearheaded by Washington state Rep. Matt Shea.

Some have denounced the shutdowns as “unconstitutional” – although no court has made that determination – while others view them as evidence of a global plot to strip away civil liberties and impose a totalitarian “new world order.”

Shea, in a recent Facebook post, questioned whether Inslee would use the National Guard to enforce his orders and raised the specter of “martial law.” He also questioned whether the state would force residents to be inoculated when a coronavirus vaccine becomes available, and he’s trafficked in baseless conspiracy theories that the virus was created in a Chinese government lab.

In another post on Monday, Shea complained after states on both sides of the country announced they have formed coalitions to prepare to restart their economies. On the East Coast, New York is joining forces with New Jersey, Connecticut, Delaware, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania. On the West Coast, Washington has teamed with Oregon and California.

Referring to those as “deeply Democrat states,” Shea asserted they “are banding together to essentially control the economy and undermine our president. Please prepare yourself, your friends and your family for political action in the coming days and weeks. Enough is enough.”

Shea also said those states are acting “with the airs of secessionism.” Until recently, he led his own secession movement – a plan to turn Eastern Washington into a 51st state called Liberty. He was expelled from the House Republican caucus in December.

On Easter Sunday, Ammon Bundy defied Idaho’s gathering restrictions by hosting about 60 people at a warehouse in Emmett, a small town northwest of Boise, NPR reported. Bundy – who along with Shea led an armed standoff against federal agents at an Eastern Oregon wildlife refuge in 2016 – has repeatedly downplayed the severity of COVID-19, comparing the disease to the flu even as experts warn that it kills at a higher rate.

In Coeur d’Alene, Idaho state Rep. Tim Remington continued holding in-person services at his church in March despite multiple church members testing positive for COVID-19 and Little’s stay-home order.

In Bonner County, Sheriff Darryl Wheeler recently published an open letter to the governor, asserting without evidence that citizens were “misled by some public health officials.” In a message to constituents, state Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, referred to the stay-home order as an unconstitutional “edict.”

A week ago, six members of the Yakima City Council voted to censure conservative Councilman Jason White over a series of offensive and controversial Facebook posts, including one in which he urged constituents to take off their face masks and get back to work.

Republic police Chief Loren Culp, who’s running a long-shot campaign to replace Inslee as governor, made headlines in late 2018 when he vowed not to enforce a set of voter-approved gun control laws. Now, Culp is accusing Inslee of “picking winners and losers” by imposing “arbitrary” restrictions on various businesses and activities.

“Construction, as long as it’s government projects, can continue, but residential has to shut down,” Culp said in an interview Monday. “You can go to a Walmart with 100-plus people inside of it, but you can’t go to your local cafe with 10 or 15 people who might be in there. It just goes contrary to individual freedom and liberty.”

Culp, who enjoys fishing with his family, also complained that fishing in state parks has been banned due to the pandemic. He said he trusts citizens to heed public health advice on their own, and believes the current government-mandated safety measures are a slippery slope to authoritarianism.

“What is to keep a rabid, anti-gun governor from declaring a state of emergency after the next school shooting and banning all firearms or closing down all gun shops for safety?” he asked.

Paraphrasing Martin Luther King Jr., Culp said people have “a moral obligation to disobey unjust laws.” But he did not explicitly call on Washingtonians to violate Inslee’s orders.

“I’m not recommending anyone break any law,” Culp said. “I am recommending that people question authority, and question why one group of people is allowed to go to work, but another group of people is not allowed.”

The Northeast Tri County Health District reported its first death due to COVID-19 on Sunday, although the region still has relatively few confirmed cases. As of Sunday, the district had documented one case in Ferry County, one in Pend Oreille County and seven in Stevens County, including the patient who died.

“With those lower case numbers, it’s given us the ability in public health to aggressively pursue those positive cases and their close contacts,” said Matt Schanz, the health district’s administrator.

Schanz said that “by and large” residents have been following public health advice, staying home and avoiding groups. Public health officials, he said, have focused on “education and outreach” to groups that have held gatherings.

“People are choosing to do the right thing,” Schanz said. “There have been some isolated occurrences where that advice has not been, or appears not to have been, heeded. And we go through the process we need to make the appropriate documentation of that.”

Dr. Samuel Artzis, the tri-county health officer, said a small outbreak of COVID-19 can quickly become a large one if people don’t take the recommended precautions, even in rural areas where it’s easier to practice social distancing.

“That can have a huge impact on a small community with limited resources and a small hospital,” Artzis said.

Ferry County Commissioner Johnna Exner, who sits on the board of the health district, referred to Inslee’s stay-home order as an “ask,” rather than a lawful directive. But she believes people must continue keeping their distance and avoiding crowded businesses to slow the spread of the virus.

“People need to understand it’s really serious,” she said, suggesting people catch up on news about the pandemic from other parts of the world. “Maybe the reality needs to sink in that it could happen here. So please, keep your distance.”