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Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Washington Legislature. Austin Jenkins is the Olympia correspondent for the Northwest News Network. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) weekly public affairs program "Inside Olympia."

Washington state Gov. Inslee announces statewide stay-at-home order

Office of Wash. Gov. Jay Inslee
Monday night, WA Gov. Jay Inslee addressed the state and issued a 'stay-at-home' order in a further attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak

Following the lead of California and several other states and local communities, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday evening announced an immediate statewide "stay-at-home" order that will last for at least two weeks. It requires all residents of Washington to remain at home unless they are conducting essential business or taking a break for some fresh air.

Inslee's announcement followed a similar move by Oregon Gov. Kate Brown earlier in the day to reduce person-to-person transmission of the new coronavirus.

"This is a very difficult choice and I make this difficult choice knowing it will add to the economic and family hardship many in our state are already feeling as we try to slow and turn back this pandemic," Inslee said in a televised address from Olympia. "The fastest way to get back to normal is to hit this hard. That is what we're doing."

The sweeping new restrictions on daily life represent the most dramatic step yet in Inslee’s use of his emergency powers to try to enforce social distancing and slow the spread of the outbreak. 

Previously, Inslee limited crowd sizes, shuttered schools for six weeks and ordered bars, restaurants and other entertainment venues to close. But in recent days, there were growing calls for Inslee to take the next step and mandate that people remain home. 

To date, the virus has claimed 110 lives in the state and 2,221 people have tested positive with 31 of 39 counties reporting at least one case. Until recently, Washington led the nation with the most confirmed cases and the most deaths. Now New York, with more than 20,000 cases and 157 deaths as of Monday, has that distinction, according to NPR.

"The rapid growth in the number of cases has really put our state in a race against time," Inslee said. "The more of us who stay home, the fewer of us who will be infected by COVID-19 and the more lives that will be saved."

Inslee announced his "Stay Home, Stay Healthy" order during a rare televised speech from his desk, a setup which resembled a presidential address from the Oval Office. The governor's decision to restrict individual activity followed a sunny, early spring weekend during which images were widely shared on social media of crowds of people recreating outdoors and not practicing social-distancing.

Last Friday, Inslee warned that more emergency measures might be necessary if the public didn't heed calls to voluntarily limit their activities.

“The governor has been very clear on the need for Washingtonians to stay home, and while most Washingtonians are doing their part, some are still not grasping the seriousness of this pandemic,” his office said Monday. 

In addition to requiring people to remain at home, Inslee’s new proclamation also orders all non-essential businesses in the state to shutter within 48 hours unless their workforces can operate from home. 

Grocery stores, gas stations, pharmacies, hardware stores and other businesses deemed essential will remain open. In addition, restaurants will still be allowed to offer take-out and delivery. 

Inslee said the definition of an essential business was based in large measure on how the federal government defines essential critical infrastructure workers. The many sectors deemed essential include healthcare and public health, emergency services, food and agriculture, communications and energy.

Washington state's definition of "essential" businesses has a distinct West Coast flavor by including cannabis retailers, ferries, wine making and laundromats.

The order – which Inslee’s office said is not a shelter-in-place order -- essentially will require Washington’s 7.5 million residents to minimize physical interactions with others unless they are engaged in an essential activity. Permissible outings include going to the grocery store or a doctor’s appointment or going to work at an essential business. 

"This does not mean you can't go outside," Inslee stressed. "If you feel like going for a walk, gardening, going for a bike ride, we consider these things essential activity too for everyone's physical and mental health. We all just need to practice social distancing of at least six feet to protect ourselves and others everywhere."

Even so, the requirement that people stay home is likely to have a profound effect on daily lives. According to guidance from Inslee’s office, all public and private gatherings “for social, spiritual and recreational purposes” will be banned, including weddings and funerals. That provision also takes effect immediately.

A violation of an emergency order issued by the governor is a gross misdemeanor. 

Inslee’s new order came on the heels of an announcement from The Boeing Company that it will idle its operations in Washington, including its sprawling Everett assembly plant, for 14 days. That followed the death of an Everett plant worker who reportedly died from COVID-19. Boeing’s Renton plant was already idled as a result of the ongoing FAA grounding of the 737 Max airplane.

Minutes after Inslee concluded his public remarks, the four top leaders of the Democratic and Republican caucuses in the Washington Senate and House of Representatives endorsed the governor's actions.

"Our behavior could mean life or death for Washingtonians," said the joint statement signed by state Sen. Andy Billig, Sen. Mark Schoesler, Speaker of the House Laurie Jinkins and Rep. JT Wilcox. "We will get through this. We must work together, support each other and stay positive."

Democratic Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz praised Inslee for not settling for "half-measures" in a separate statement emailed late Monday.

"The data is also clear that the steps we have taken to date, although drastic, are not enough," Franz said. "People are still gathering in large crowds and ignoring the protocols of social distancing. This behavior undercuts the sacrifices that Washingtonians of all means and ability are making."

Even though Washington was the first state to have a confirmed case of COVID-19 and the first to report deaths from the virus, Inslee lagged other governors in moving to impose a stay-home order. According to CNN, 13 states representing 40 percent of the nation’s population will have such an order in place by Wednesday -- not including Washington. 

Some local governments didn’t wait for Inslee’s order. Over the weekend, officials in Yakima County and in the cities of Everett and Edmonds issued their own orders for people to stay at home.

“We have been thoughtful and deliberate in making these tough choices,” Inslee’s office said.

*This story has been updated.

Since January 2004, Austin Jenkins has been the Olympia-based political reporter for the Northwest News Network. In that position, Austin covers Northwest politics and public policy, as well as the Washington State Legislature. You can also see Austin on television as host of TVW's (the C–SPAN of Washington State) Emmy-nominated public affairs program "Inside Olympia."
Now semi-retired, Tom Banse covered national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reported from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events unfolded. Tom's stories can be found online and were heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.