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Opinion >  Column

Sue Lani Madsen: What’s the end game?

UPDATED: Wed., Nov. 11, 2020

When is an emergency over? Firefighters are demobilized when the fire is out. The National Guard is deactivated when order is restored. What’s the end game for the COVID-19 state of emergency?

When Gov.Jay Inslee issued Proclamation 15-15 declaring a state of emergency in all counties, he was properly exercising his legal authority and responsibility. The same 2015 proclamation also activated the National Guard to respond to “a series of severe rain and wind storms.”

That state of emergency technically remained in effect for almost three years until it was terminated by Proclamation 18-02 on May 1, 2018. Proclamation 18-02 also canceled 2017 states of emergency for bad weather in March and April, wildfires in September and the derailment of a passenger train in Pierce County threatening I-5 in December.

Under RCW 43.06, the governor has broad powers to declare a state of emergency which only ends “upon the issuance of a proclamation of the governor declaring its termination.” One person controls when a state of emergency ends. And that’s a problem.

State government has operated under a series of emergency proclamations for eight months. Twenty-seven were set to expire on Nov. 9 and renewed to Dec. 7, two expire on Dec. 31 unless renewed, and the remaining nine are in effect until the formal termination of the emergency by the governor. Eleven have been allowed to lapse.

What are the metrics for terminating the current state of emergency? No one knows. Or at least no one is telling the public.

Republicans are still being shut out of the conversation, according to state Sen. Judy Warnick, R-Moses Lake. “I know this is real and I know people who have passed away from it,” she said. “We’ve asked over and over to be part of the team so when we go home and talk to our constituents, we can provide information. It shouldn’t be a one-man operation.”

Warnick feels the lack of communication is why there’s so much resistance.

Inslee hasn’t acknowledged his part in creating his own headwinds. On Nov. 4 he declared since there was a clear difference in COVID strategy between his opponent and himself and he won, then he has a mandate to continue unchanged and unaffected. He could have reached out. He could have said since 28 of 39 counties preferred his opponent, perhaps he should listen to concerns from outside his base. But he didn’t. Leaders have to look back and see if everyone is following.

Other states have more robust laws providing checks and balances on gubernatorial powers. Montana sets a 45-day limit before the Legislature must weigh in to agree to extend the state of emergency or vote to terminate. Ending the declared emergency doesn’t end the use of emergency resources as needed, it simply returns governance to normal channels.

Restore Washington saw the need to fix the RCW to provide similar protections and launched an initiative drive during the summer. It was going well until the COVID case curve flattened and before the campaign season overwhelmed everyone’s attention. Initiative I-1114 is currently being circulated to provide for a similar legislative check on a governor’s open-ended authority. Restore Washington seeks to collect enough signatures by Dec. 17 to present the measure to the Legislature in 2021.

When a state of emergency was declared for a measles outbreak in Clark County in 2019, there was a clear goal. The outbreak would be over and the state of emergency ended when two full incubation periods (42 days) had passed since the date of rash onset in the last known case with no new cases reported.

No similarly clear target has been offered for COVID-19, nor is it possible. Zero new cases is clearly unrealistic for a disease rapidly approaching endemic status, according to the WHO. We have to learn to live with it instead of hiding from it. It will take better education, better communication and transparency in decision-making.

A society cannot flourish with a population living in a constant state of emergency.

Contact Sue Lani Madsen at rulingpen@gmail.com.

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