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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: Restlessness rises without clarity about when Washington will reopen

Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)
Sue Lani Madsen, an architect and rancher, writes a weekly column. (Jesse Tinsley / The Spokesman-Review)

Restlessness may turn to revolt without a plan for reopening Washington for business.

For Washington families who were living paycheck to paycheck, the economic pandemic is as real a threat as COVID-19.

“We’re killing our economy,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, a Republican from Colfax. “I’m really worried about folks facing week 4 of no paychecks.”

Disgruntled talk of civil disobedience is driven by obvious inconsistencies over which businesses and activities are shut down and which are considered safe. The arbitrariness stings.

Small-shop owners who’d be delighted to have 10 customers on a good day are shut down if their niche inventory is declared nonessential, while big box stores selling the same items are not. Turkey hunters wonder why hiking through the woods with one or two companions is a public health menace, but recreational cycling is not.

It’s hard to rationalize a hunting ban after driving by the climbing rocks and a mountain biking trailhead along Upriver Drive in Spokane. The parking lots were full on Friday afternoon.

“We’re the only state in the union prohibiting fishing, which is a solitary sport to begin with,” said Jim Jerow, retired U.S. Navy diver from Seven Bays.

Gov. Jay Inslee said the “optimistic version” of opening things up again “is that we will make a transition from phase one – which is social distancing – where we’ve wrestled the number down to zero or close to zero, as far as fatalities we’re experiencing per day.”

Jerow says that approach is “utterly ridiculous. This (virus) is going to be around forever.”

And we can’t stay shut down forever. We need a plan.

A bipartisan House committee attempting to work with the governor was flatly rejected. According to Schmick, the group approached the governor in the second week of the shutdown with a list of a dozen business sectors they felt could operate safely, and were rebuffed.

House Minority Leader Rep. J.T. Wilcox, a Republican from Yelm, credits Inslee with taking swift and appropriate action when the COVID-19 crisis exploded in Kirkland, but has been pressing for an exit strategy from the beginning.

Wilcox said he’s been telling the governor and his staff for three weeks that unless they are better able to explain the visible parts that don’t make sense, they are risking their ability to command the loyalty of the people of Washington in the next crisis.

“They can’t just turn a dial and have people behind them,” Wilcox said.

Federal recommendations are out now, suggesting a county-by-county approach to staged reopening based on each governor’s local knowledge of local conditions. Meanwhile, Inslee has “been very inflexible” about changing his plans in response to geography, according to Wilcox. The governor’s top-down directives continue to treat tiny Pomeroy the same as the Puget Sound megalopolis, in spite of available data.

There are no cases of COVID-19 in Garfield County. Pomeroy is the county seat and only town, the poster child for why one-size-fits-all fails in a state as economically and geographically diverse as Washington. Might as well protect a small child from the rain by wrapping them in a raincoat sized for grandpa.

Schmick believes local health officials should be making the call on what measures make sense in their communities and for their businesses, as long as plans are in place for operating safely under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines.

Schmick shares Wilcox’s frustration with the governor’s office.

“We’ve been asking for data, tell us what are you using and what are the benchmarks,” Schmick said. “He’s not given us anything.”

But no matter how many times leaders say they’re going to be using science and data, there isn’t any science and data that can make the decision. It’s a judgment call. And it’s not just a public health crisis. Elected officials have a greater responsibility.

“You cannot have just one priority, you’re elected to balance priorities. We have to have an economy, we have to have public safety,” said Wilcox. “If you could have prevented the Great Depression, wouldn’t you have done it?”

John Christina, administrator of the new Facebook group Reopen Spokane County, isn’t looking to start a revolution. He’s encouraging citizens to provide pressure within the system, contacting the governor’s office to push for “adopting reasonable measures to deal with COVID-19 without destroying our economy and trampling our civil liberties.”

The uncertainty is not going to be tolerated forever. Without a reopening plan, people will write their own regardless of orders from the governor’s office. And as more than one person has remarked recently, they can’t arrest everyone.

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