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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Washington GOP lawmakers decry Inslee’s statewide restrictions as COVID-19 cases climb

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee speaks during a news conference, Sunday, Nov. 15, 2020, at the Capitol in Olympia, Wash. Inslee announced new restrictions on businesses and social gatherings for the next four weeks as the state continues to combat a rising number of coronavirus cases.  (Ted S. Warren)

WASHINGTON – After Washington’s new statewide restrictions on businesses and gatherings went into effect Tuesday and Wednesday, the three Republicans who represent the state in Congress criticized Gov. Jay Inslee’s move and called for more local control to keep businesses open.

After Inslee, a Democrat re-elected to his third term this month, announced the restrictions Sunday in response to a rising tide of COVID-19 cases across the state and nation, Eastern Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers released a statement warning the month-long emergency measures will hurt small businesses.

“I would really encourage the governor to focus on giving people hope rather than continuing to create so much fear,” the Spokane Republican said in an interview. “We need to focus on doing things in a safe and responsible way. To close restaurants and bars and reduce the retail as dramatically as he’s mandating is ignoring all of the work and the investment that they have done to open in a safe and responsible way.”

The restrictions on bars and restaurants went into effect Wednesday, while rules for other businesses kicked in a day earlier. All the measures – which include the closure of gyms and movie theaters and limits on weddings, religious services and other gatherings – are set to last at least until Dec. 14.

Rep. Dan Newhouse, a Central Washington Republican who announced his own COVID-19 diagnosis Wednesday, said Tuesday that restaurants “are not the culprits in this situation” and should be allowed to stay open for indoor dining.

“I don’t think that the numbers are telling us that restaurants are where people are contracting the disease,” Newhouse said. “If the true goal is to prevent people from gathering, we’re actually forcing them – by taking away those options – into getting together in private homes.”

A Nov. 12 report from the Washington State Department of Health shows that 151 coronavirus outbreaks have taken place in restaurants in the state, more than in any other non-health care setting.

Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, who represents southwest Washington, echoed her fellow Republicans in a statement.

“These are state and local decisions based on local conditions, but we have learned enough about how to prevent the spread of the virus that we ought to be able to avoid shutting down businesses as long as they take the necessary precautions,” she said. “As we head into the holiday season, massive layoffs and furloughs are going to be particularly devastating and we need to make sure workers can still buy food and pay bills.”

Congress passed a nearly $3 trillion pandemic relief package in March, but that funding is drying up with many of the legislation’s provisions set to expire at the end of December. Republican and Democratic negotiators have been deadlocked for months over a new relief deal and it is unclear if more help is on the way from the Capitol.

Herrera Beutler filed a motion in September to circumvent the House’s top Democrat, Nancy Pelosi of California, and force a vote on a standalone bill to extend one critical measure, the Paycheck Protection Program, which provides forgivable loans that kept many businesses afloat until it expired in August.

“The PPP is a proven safety net program that has saved thousands of jobs in Southwest Washington and millions across the country,” she said in a statement. “The need to immediately revive the Paycheck Protection Program’s forgivable small business loans was already urgent; with Governor Inslee’s announcement it’s become an emergency.”

The GOP lawmakers’ reactions to Inslee’s order reflected the ongoing polarization that public health experts have warned hampers efforts to combat the virus.

“We’ve got to get public health issues out of the realm of political divisiveness,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s top infectious disease expert, said Tuesday in a New York Times virtual event. “We’ve got to do everything we possibly can to pull together as a nation and not as individual factions having differences that spill over into public health.”

Even wearing a mask has become divisive in Congress, although McMorris Rodgers and New- house both said they wear masks in public. In a tense moment on the Senate floor Monday, Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, asked Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan to wear a mask, to which Sullivan shot back, “I don’t need your instruction.”

Marjorie Taylor Greene, an incoming GOP congresswoman from Georgia, tweeted after a Nov. 13 orientation for new lawmakers, “masks are oppressive,” followed by the hashtag “#FreeYourFace.”

Sen. Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, said politicizing basic public health measures has a serious impact.

“The scientists are telling us, ‘If you wear a mask, you keep this pandemic from spreading,’ ” she said. “It’s pretty simple, and it is the cheapest thing we can be doing, so to have a division about it being political is really disappointing.”

McMorris Rodgers said Washington’s most rural counties shouldn’t have to follow the same restrictions as counties that include cities like Seattle.

“People are exhausted and running on empty, and to be imposing a one-size-fits-all mandate across the state and not recognizing regional differences is impacting real business owners who employ real people that are going to lose their jobs. Ferry County is not the same as King County.”

Ferry County has seen just 45 confirmed cases and a single death, but other counties in the mostly rural 5th Congressional District McMorris Rodgers represents have been less fortunate. Spokane, Whitman, Garfield, Asotin and Walla Walla counties all have higher per-capita infection rates than any county west of the Cascades, according to a New York Times tracker.

The Central Washington district Newhouse represents has seen the highest infection rates in the state. One in 16 Franklin County residents has contracted the virus, as have one in 17 in Adams County and one in 18 in Yakima County.

Murray said a county-by-county approach would fail to account for the way the virus spreads across county and state boundaries.

“People are very mobile,” she said. “They go from city to city, they go from community to community, they go from state to state. And as long as they’re doing that without taking precautions to stop the spread, it’s going to continue to grow. And it is a costly pandemic that’s impacting all of us.”