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Pierce County Democrats call out inconsistency of Inslee's 2-week pause

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, center, talks with workers at a drive-up mass vaccination site on March 4, 2021, in Puyallup.
Ted S. Warren
The Associated Press
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, center, talks with workers at a drive-up mass vaccination site on March 4, 2021, in Puyallup.

Washington Gov. Jay Inslee is receiving criticism from lawmakers in his own party over his shifting economic reopening plan, with a group of Pierce County Democrats threatening the possibility of a special legislative session following the governor’s recent implementation of a pause that left their county stuck in a phase with tighter COVID-19 restrictions.

The letter, sent Thursday afternoon, was signed by eight Democrats in the House and Senate and four House Republicans. It comes the same day that the Washington Hospitality Association launched a petition to follow California’s lead and fully reopen the state on June 15. Dozens of other states have already set plans to fully reopen their economies, include including New York and New Jersey, which have set a May 19 goal.

The letter states that while they don't dispute the rising numbers in Pierce County that have only recently started to level out, the decision to pause Pierce and three other counties with more restrictions while allowing counties that were set to roll back to continue to have more business activity “damages both our confidence and communities.”

“Suspending any change in county status for two weeks notwithstanding these metrics changes a set of rules that have consistently guided reopening decisions and protected the public over the last few months,” the letter reads.

The lawmakers said they want Inslee to re-examine his current plan “with an eye toward public health, public support, equity, and consistency.”

“Failure to do so will require us to consider asking our leadership to exercise the Legislature’s authority to call a special session and weigh legislative options,” the letter reads.

Signing the letter were Democratic Reps. Mari Leavitt, Dan Bronoske, Melanie Morgan, Steve Kirby; Democratic Sens. Emily Randall, T'wina Nobles, Steve Conway and Claire Wilson; and Republican Reps. Jim McCune, Cyndy Jacobsen, Michelle Caldier, and Eric Robertson. The letter was first reported by Q13-TV. Pierce County is Washington's second most populous.

Inslee has not given a timeframe on when the state might fully reopen, citing the unpredictability of the virus. Currently in Washington, just four of the state’s 39 counties are in the more restrictive Phase 2: Cowlitz, Pierce and Whitman, which were rolled back from Phase 3 last month, and Ferry County, where health officials last week voluntarily moved back because of a recent outbreak.

On Monday, several more counties — including King, the state’s largest — were braced to move back to Phase 2 of the plan, which includes reduced capacity for indoor dining and gyms, based on case counts and hospitalizations. But Inslee’s surprise announcement to implement a two-week pause came after he said recent data from the Department of Health showed coronavirus activity reaching a plateau in the state.

In Phase 3, restaurants, bars and gyms can operate at 50% capacity. At Phase 2, that’s reduced to 25%.

Pierce County lawmakers decried the pause as a change in the rules of the governor's plan, and “runs counter to our understanding that science and fairness shape decisions and changes to the reopening plan.”

“We must have a reliable standard that our families and businesses can operate from,” the lawmakers wrote.

In a written statement issued Thursday night, Inslee said Pierce County was not treated unfairly.

“We understand frustrations that have arisen during this pandemic,” he wrote. “But they arise because of the rising numbers of the virus, not because of any disparate treatment between counties by my administration."

House Republican leader J.T. Wilcox expressed frustration that Democrats, including those representing Pierce County, voted against efforts to reform Inslee's emergency powers during the recent legislative session that ended April 25. In a statement on Wednesday he said that he hopes "the lesson we all take from this is there should always be legislative oversight on emergency powers.”

Under the current metrics of the state’s reopening plan, larger counties must have fewer than 200 new cases per 100,000 people over a two-week period and less than five new COVID hospitalizations per 100,000 people over a one-week period in order to be in Phase 3.

Seventeen smaller counties — Klickitat, Asotin, Pacific, Adams, San Juan, Pend Oreille, Skamania, Lincoln, Ferry, Wahkiakum, Columbia, Kittitas, Stevens, Douglas, Okanogan, Jefferson, and Garfield — must have fewer than 100 new cases over a two-week period and fewer than 3 new COVID hospitalizations over a one-week period in order to avoid going to Phase 2. Phase 1 is the most restrictive, including no indoor dining at restaurants allowed.

There have been more than 380,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases — plus another 30,000 “probable” cases — in Washington state, and 5,553 deaths.

All state residents over age 16 have been eligible for a coronavirus vaccination since April 15. As of this week, more than 5.6 million doses of vaccine have been administered, with more than 54% of those eligible getting at least one dose. More than 39% of those eligible in the state are fully vaccinated.