Spokane City Councilman Jonathan Bingle refuses to wear a mask around others in City Hall, raising legal questions and causing his colleagues consternation.
Bingle is openly flouting the state of Washington’s mask order, which requires everyone over the age of 5 to wear a mask in most indoor public spaces regardless of vaccination status. He is also violating the city’s own policies, which require him to wear a mask when not alone at his desk.
Bingle’s disregard of masks amid a record-high spike of COVID-19 cases in Spokane County has prompted Council President Breean Beggs to consult with administration officials and the city’s legal department.
Beggs is considered a department head, but said “I do not have supervisory authority over other elected officials, so I’m a different department head than most.” He noted the Washington Department of Labor and Industries has the authority to investigate violations of state health orders, but said he is not aware of any active complaint against Bingle.
In a Jan. 24 letter, Beggs went as far as to ask the city administrator to consider revoking access to City Hall for anyone who violates the mask policy, “including City Council members.”
The administration’s ability to take such enforcement measures against an elected official is a legal “gray area,” said city spokesman Brian Coddington.
“There’s a discussion that’s happening with the council member about the policy, and implementation of that policy, and expectation of following that guidance,” Coddington said.
Beggs said Bingle’s refusal to wear a mask has caused anxiety among employees in the council office. He is allowing all employees to work from home.
“My first commitment is to the safety of our workers,” Beggs said.
Beggs has directly confronted Bingle over the issue.
“It appears that he’s doing it to make a point, and I have lots of empathy for people who like to make points, but not at the distress of other people,” Beggs said.
Bingle was elected to represent District 1, which encompasses northeast Spokane, last November and took office less than a month ago.
“I am taking a principled stand against unconstitutional mandates that are more about government control than science,” Bingle wrote in a statement to The Spokesman-Review, adding that he supports proposed state legislation to limit the governor’s authority during emergencies.
A substantial body of scientific evidence points to the efficacy of wearing a mask to reduce the spread of the coronavirus. Their use is strongly backed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which notes in its voluminous webpage on masks that “at least ten studies have confirmed the benefit of universal masking in community level analyses.”
In a follow-up interview, Bingle told The Spokesman-Review he believes the mandate to be inconsistent with science. It allows him to sit at his desk maskless, but forces him to don one when in common areas and around others, even though they are breathing “the same” recirculated air either way.
Ventilation and circulation plays a role in viral transmission, but all air is not the same. The CDC acknowledges transmission can occur at distances greater than 6 feet, particularly indoors, but notes that “risk of transmission is greatest within three to six feet of an infectious source where the concentration of these very fine droplets and particles is greatest.”
The Environmental Protection Agency, in its webpage detailing coronavirus transmission through indoor air, notes that “the risk of infection by breathing in particles carrying the virus generally decreases with distance from infected people and with time.” The EPA generally recommends increasing ventilation with outdoor air and filtration systems, but as “components of a larger strategy that may include physical distancing, wearing cloth face coverings or masks, surface cleaning, handwashing, and other precautions.”
Bingle declined to disclose whether or not he is vaccinated.
When asked whether he had concerns about causing discomfort among the other people in his office, Bingle said “I think the city of Spokane has done a great job of making accommodations for employees that feel uncomfortable” by allowing them to work from home.
The controversy comes as COVID-19 cases spike among city employees, mirroring the trend in the broader community. Beggs said he is aware of six COVID-19 cases in the approximately 21-person council office since the start of the new year.
Vaccination is not mandatory for city employees, but masks are required to be worn in City Hall unless a person is alone at their workstation. They are provided to employees for free.
In an email to city employees last week, City Administrator Johnnie Perkins warned that “repeated violations can result in a record of counseling and entering into the progressive discipline process.”
While some council members are looking to the administration for enforcement, Councilman Michael Cathcart rejects the idea of the executive branch banishing a member of the legislative branch from City Hall. He said such action would be “constitutionally questionable if not just outright wrong.”
Councilwoman Lori Kinnear argued that although she is an elected official, “the same rules apply to me as everybody else in the building.”
“There should be some kind of repercussion for not following the rules, and I look to (the mayor and city administrator) to make a decision,” Kinnear said.
Several of Bingle’s colleagues questioned what Bingle has to lose by wearing a mask.
“For me, again, I really detest inconsistency,” Bingle said.
Bingle argued that his colleagues are guilty of hypocrisy. For example, he pointed to a photo of an unmasked Zack Zappone published on election night in The Spokesman-Review.
Zappone wasn’t certain exactly why he wasn’t wearing a mask that moment, but told The Spokesman-Review he wore a mask much of that night. He also said he abides by the mask policy while in City Hall.
Councilwoman Karen Stratton described Bingle as “very friendly,” and credited him with quickly settling into the office. But she said “I’ve never seen him wear a mask, and that has been concerning.”
“It’s professional courtesy in a workplace to be safe,” said Stratton.
Kinnear said council members have a responsibility to not spread the disease to employees in the council office and elsewhere in City Hall.
“For me, it’s not just about ‘am I going to get sick?’ Am I going to spread it to somebody else? Am I going to clog up a hospital bed?” Kinnear asked. “There’s so many considerations, it’s not just about me, it’s about the people around me.”
Along with her husband, Stratton contracted COVID-19 earlier in the pandemic.
“I don’t want to get sick again, and I don’t want my husband to get sick again,” Stratton said.
Bingle’s legislative assistant, Nicolette Ocheltree, confirmed she contracted COVID-19 this month and returned to work in-person on Wednesday after quarantining and testing negative. She does not believe she contracted the virus from Bingle, but from another employee in the council office.
Stratton expressed concern for people who may have underlying health conditions or who are caring for a person who is at-risk.
“Pick your battles, come on,” Stratton said. “Don’t die on that hill.”
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