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Judge upholds Inslee emergency proclamation, business closures

UPDATED: Mon., June 15, 2020

The Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse is shown in this photograph. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice ruled against a Lake Chelan water slide business that sued Gov. Jay Inslee in hopes of reopening amid mandatory coronavirus closures.  (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)
The Thomas S. Foley United States Courthouse is shown in this photograph. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Thomas Rice ruled against a Lake Chelan water slide business that sued Gov. Jay Inslee in hopes of reopening amid mandatory coronavirus closures. (JESSE TINSLEY/Spokesman-Review)

Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-home order and system of reopening businesses in phases is within his authority to protect the public, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. Judge Thomas Rice refused to issue a temporary restraining order requested by a Lake Chelan waterslide park that was seeking to reopen for summer business. The economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic is “extremely challenging” especially for small businesses, he agreed.

“However, the public interest in mitigating and combating the significant danger posed by the spread of COVID-19 outweighs individual business interests in continued operations,” Rice wrote. “It is not the court’s role to second-guess the reasoned public-health decisions of other branches of government.”

Slidewaters, a water park in Lake Chelan, had recently completed major renovations and was hoping to recoup some of the costs with the 2020 season between late May and Labor Day. It sought the court order blocking Inslee’s emergency proclamations. The state Department of Labor and Industries shouldn’t be allowed to tell businesses that don’t comply with the orders to close or face a loss of license and fines of up to $10,000, the company argued.

Inslee announced a county-by-county system of reopening in May with multiple phases of business activity allowed. Chelan County was in Phase 1 when the lawsuit was filed and remains in a modified version of that phase. The park wouldn’t be able to open until Phase 3.

The company created its own safety plan to maintain cleanliness, health and social distancing, and argued it should be allowed to open under that.

Slidewaters contended Inslee didn’t have the authority to issue an emergency proclamation for the pandemic and the department didn’t have the authority to enforce it. But state law clearly gives a governor and the department that authority, Rice wrote.

The company owners also contended the restrictions violate their property rights “without due process,” a claim the judge also rejected.

State governments have the right to enact quarantine laws or other rules to protect public health, Rice wrote. They can’t be unreasonable, too broad or unequally applied.

“Here, it could not be disputed that the proclamations and emergency rules are reasonably related to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic,” he wrote.

Slidewaters made a convincing case that it will suffer economic harm by the extended closure but that harm must be weighed against the potential for public harm from the virus, Rice wrote.

The state “put forth substantial evidence of the public health risks posed by COVID-19, especially concerning its serious symptoms and risk of death, its ability to be spread by individuals who do not know they are infected, the limited knowledge medical professionals have of this novel disease, and the need to restrict in-person gatherings to slow transmission of the disease in the absence of other effective prevention or treatment measures,” he wrote.

In a news release, Inslee’s office Monday called Rice’s decision the first significant judicial ruling since the pandemic began that wasn’t based solely on procedures or jurisdiction.

The Freedom Foundation, which is defending the water park, called the emergency order “an illegal power grab” by Inslee and said Rice’s ruling “defies common sense.” A news release from the Olympia-based organization said it will ask for a full court hearing and an injunction against the order, and that Slidewaters will open soon in defiance of the state restrictions.

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