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Wilcox: Legislature should have a say in emergency powers

Rep. J.T. Wilcox, left, leader of the minority Republicans in the Washington state House.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Rep. J.T. Wilcox, left, leader of the minority Republicans in the Washington state House.

Starting Friday, three Washington counties will be back in Phase 2 of the state’s pandemic reopening plan.

Gov. Jay Inslee’s office announced this week that Pierce, Cowlitz and Whitman counties had case counts or hospitalization rates that warranted things like lower restaurant capacity, tighter limits on indoor gatherings, and other steps.

That step backward has deeply concerned many business owners in the three counties, especially restaurants whose dining rooms are now limited to 25 percent capacity.

House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox said in a statement that Inslee is “punishing people who have followed the rules” and that people in the three counties rolling back to Phase 2 will face more challenges, through no fault of their own.

He spoke to KNKX’s Ed Ronco. Listen above or read the transcript below.

INTERVIEW TRANSCRIPT, edited for clarity.

Ed Ronco, KNKX: The governor's office would probably say this is not punitive, just a public safety decision based on metrics – that it's not about following the rules or not, but rather what the case counts and hospitalization rates are.

State Rep. J.T. Wilcox, House Republican Leader: Well, I think that probably the people that will be affected, just when they are beginning to recover, feel punished. And maybe that wasn't the governor's intent. But I think it's worth trying to distinguish between where we are in the pandemic now versus where we were eight, nine, 10 months ago. The situation in Pierce County, like it is in a lot of counties, is that people that are vulnerable have had three months now to be vaccinated, and a pretty high proportion of them are. We've also looked carefully at both statewide and Pierce County-wide statistics in terms of hospital capacity. They are not being stretched, and there's plenty of capacity to handle any increase in cases, although we're really not seeing those.

KNKX: Your district includes part of Pierce County. What are you hearing from constituents there?

Wilcox: Well, I think that people are feeling like this has become excessive, and I think their feeling of cooperation is declining compared to what it was a year ago. And also the sense that if they have been vaccinated or if they are conducting their lives safely, they should be able to make their own choices.

KNKX: Let's talk about the governor's emergency powers. You and other Republicans have expressed some serious concerns about Governor Inslee’s emergency powers. What would you like the governor to do? This is an emergency, even if it's a long-lived one. So what's the thing you'd like to see happen?

Wilcox: First of all, I'd like to see him do two things with these three counties. It's not just about Pierce County. I would like to see him, maybe put them on a watch, and if we are beginning to stretch our hospital capacity, then he can take further actions. But I don't think that that's necessary right now. The other thing that I think is important is to set a schedule for unwinding the executive orders that are there now. I think the longer you leave them in place, the harder it's going to be for people to adjust. All of us have come to expect a conventional government with three co-equal branches, and an extended emergency that has no end date and has no means by which the Legislature can end it, I don't think is the way people expect to be governed in the United States. This is just a good government measure.

KNKX: Studies have shown that there are some higher rates of vaccine hesitancy among people who consider themselves politically conservative. I bring it up, because as a GOP leader in the state, you obviously interact with a lot of conservative voters. So I'm curious: What do you say when someone expresses to you that they're hesitant to get the vaccine?

Wilcox: Well, one of the things that I say is, you know, I grew up in the livestock business and I've personally given tens of thousands of vaccinations, and it's only fair that I get vaccinated. I do think it's a choice. I have a lot of confidence in our pharmaceutical industry. I have zero hesitance myself. But … I can't imagine anything more intrusive than forcing someone to have a needle put in their arm and something injected into their body. I believe that the best choice for me and my family is to go ahead and be vaccinated. But that really seems like a big step to use the power of the state to force somebody else to do it.

Rep. J.T. Wilcox is from Yelm and the House Republican leader. He represents Washington's 2nd Legislative District, which includes parts of Thurston and Pierce counties.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.