New restrictions on indoor businesses and gatherings handed down by Gov. Jay Inslee drew rebukes from some elected leaders despite an acknowledgment that the pandemic is surging in Eastern Washington.
The Spokane Regional Health District was supportive of stricter guidelines in a statement Sunday afternoon. Over the past two weeks, there have been 2,400 positive cases in Spokane County with hospital capacity hovering between 60-65%.
“The measures are critical in limiting the spread of COVID-19, reducing risk in communities more vulnerable to serious illness and death, and helping conserve hospital capacity so that Spokane County residents can continue to have access to quality care,” the statement reads.
Interim Health Officer Dr. Francisco Velázquez was supportive of the new restrictions, saying colder temperatures and the upcoming holiday season increase the risk of spread.
“Prolonged exposure indoors puts us most at risk, and that remains as true in our personal residences as it does in public places,” said Velázquez.
“When we’re asked where we see the outbreaks, it’s difficult to pinpoint one or two main culprits. We’re seeing it everywhere. What we do know is the virus is spread in social gatherings where health measures aren’t being followed as closely. It’s then brought into schools and into workplaces.”
Mayor Nadine Woodward issued a statement touting Spokane’s “renewed resilience” despite the continued impacts of COVID-19.
“The virus has put many at extreme risk of severe health impacts, significant financial hardship, or both,” Woodward wrote. “Stepping back is not something anyone wants.”
Woodward urged Spokanites to continue wearing a mask, limiting trips to only necessary outings and supporting local businesses by using online and takeout options. The timing of the new restrictions right before the holidays is devastating, Woodward said, adding state financial support for local communities referenced by Inslee in his press conference needs to come quickly and decisively.
“We will continue working together to find safe ways to move all areas of our lives safely and responsibly past this virus,” Woodward said. “We are all in this together, and it will take our collective efforts.”
While Woodward has encouraged adherence to health guidelines, she was one of few local leaders to publicly share their excitement over the ouster of former health officer Dr. Bob Lutz, a controversial move that drew criticism from other local leaders.
Rep. Marcus Riccelli said he was “taken aback by her glee,” especially since Lutz worked well with local businesses to avoid having to roll back regulations.
“I don’t know how they’ll handle it because they’ve created a tremendous void in leadership in our community,” Riccelli said of the heath district and the new restrictions. “This is really an opportunity to show how that leadership gap is being filled.”
Riccelli said increased case counts in recent weeks both locally in Spokane and statewide have him concerned.
“I think we’re facing a public health crisis, and we’re headed into some very risky times,” he said. “It would be great if everybody just started by adhering to masking up, washing their hands and staying socially distant.”
Riccelli said he was disappointed at nearby Idaho’s handling of the pandemic, especially local leaders rolling back mask mandates during a spike in cases. He discouraged Washingtonians from crossing the state line to avoid adhering to public health guidelines.
Local businesses have been “stepping up wonderfully” to adhere to guidelines, Riccelli said, acknowledging these new guidelines will take their toll economically especially on restaurants.
“I know these are good people who are trying to make it work and who have invested into their restaurants to try and make it more feasible,” Riccelli said.
While Riccelli said a special legislative session shouldn’t be taken off the table, he would like to see what action happens federally first, calling on local members of Congress to work across the aisle to provide relief to people across the country.
U.S. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers criticized Inslee’s actions in a statement Sunday, saying she was disappointed with the new “one-size-fits-all” restrictions.
“I’m very disappointed with the Governor’s latest statewide, one-size-fits-all shutdown and am quite concerned it will severely impact small businesses and take away everything these hard-working entrepreneurs have built over years and decades,” McMorris Rodgers said. “So many people are barely hanging on and need hope.”
The congresswoman said she would prefer a regionalized approach to policy, though all counties of Eastern Washington are seeing positivity rates greater than 100 cases per 100,000 residents, according to the Washington Department of Health.
McMorris Rodgers also voted against a Democrat-backed coronavirus assistance package that paired business relief with other measures, saying this fall that she would prefer to see a bill that includes more liability protection for businesses and schools.
“I believe we are close to a vaccine and providing widespread antigen testing that will bring confidence for us to continue to open up our economy,” she said. “Let’s preserve the gains we have made in education and provide an option for more of our kids to return to in-person classes in a safe and responsible way.”
Senate Minority Leader Mark Schoesler, R-Ritzville, said in a statement Sunday he believes restrictions would be more widely accepted if they were not coming from Inslee alone.
“Senate Republicans can be ready with a day’s notice to convene an emergency special session, as we’ve asked the governor to do repeatedly,” Schoesler wrote. “We need more voices at the table on these decisions and support legislative action. There would likely be far more widespread support for safety measures if they weren’t being dictated to us by one man.”
Schoesler said Republicans would “encourage solutions which both save lives and livelihoods.”
Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig, D-Spokane, said in a statement Sunday that while people can disagree on the “exact details of restrictions” it’s clear that “action is needed to keep our communities safe.”
“We are fortunate in Washington to be in a better position than many other states,” Billig said. “We still have the chance to change the course of the virus with less severe and shorter measures than other states.”
Billig said that as a business owner himself, he understands the pain these restrictions cause business owners, employees and their families. He “fully supports” using CARES Act funding for small business assistance and called on the federal government to reinstate a supplemental unemployment benefit.
Staff writer Kip Hill contributed to this report.
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