In recent weeks, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has repeatedly thanked Washington residents for complying with his emergency orders to shutter their businesses, avoid crowds and stay home unless absolutely necessary. He often praises Washingtonians as heroes who are saving lives in the face of a global pandemic.
But while most may be complying with his orders, not all are. In fact, there’s evidence of growing restlessness with the shutdown of the economy, the skyrocketing job losses and the infringement on normal, daily activities. And in some places there are examples of outright opposition.
On Wednesday, in a notable break from weeks of bipartisan support among legislative leaders for Inslee's orders, House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox took to Facebook to criticize the Democratic governor. Wilcox's social media post followed a Tuesday evening televised address by Inslee during which he outlined a plan to resume elective surgeries, outdoor recreation and private construction.
"Last night the Governor missed a critical opportunity to explain what metrics and forecasts he's using and to address the obvious unfair and ineffective parts of his orginial Stay Home order," Wilcox wrote.
Inslee and state public health officers have said they are waiting to see clear evidence that COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations and deaths are declining. They also say the state needs to build up its testing and contact tracing capacity before many of the restrictions on daily life can start to be lifted.
"Nobody wants to keep these things in place one hour longer than it's absolutely necessary to do," said David Postman, Inslee's chief of staff, in a briefing with reporters Tuesday evening.
Earlier Tuesday, the Franklin County Commission in Pasco declared Inslee's "Stay Home" order, which is set to expire May 4, unconstitutional and voted to immediately reopen the county to business. As of Tuesday, Franklin County had reported 207 COVID-19 cases and four deaths.
In response, Postman said local governments don't have the legal authority to overrule a governor's emergency order. On Wednesday the governor's office sent a letter to Franklin County demanding the commissioners "immediately retract or rescind" the resolution.
"Local governments can't do it, it is not legal and what they're doing in Franklin County, in this case, is putting a lot of people in jeopardy," Postman said.
That vote Tuesday followed an announcement Monday by J.D. Raymond, the sheriff in Franklin County, that his deputies would not take enforcement action against churches or businesses that operate in violation of Inslee’s orders.
“Our governor has overstepped his constitutional powers and is trying to control us under the guise of protecting us,” Raymond wrote.
At the same time, the sheriff also said he believes that COVID-19 is “real” and that social distancing and other safeguards like hand washing and mask wearing are important.
“I certainly advocate to protect at-risk members of our community and continue to minimize the effects of this virus,” Raymond’s letter said. “However, I simultaneously advocate that we be allowed to conduct business and worship in a safe and logical manner.”
In a Facebook post Tuesday night, Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney also said he won't enforce the governor's orders. "The impacts of COVID 19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights," Fortney wrote. Snohomish County, with more than 2,000 COVID-19 cases and 99 deaths as of Tuesday, has been one of the hardest hit counties in the state.
Additionally, two counties and one city in Washington have encouraged or authorized private construction to continue despite Inslee’s orders. Last week, Inslee’s general counsel sent the equivalent of cease and desist letters to Chelan and Douglas Counties in central Washington, which had passed formal resolutions allowing construction, and to the city of Lynden in Whatcom County which had issued a letter to local builders encouraging them to continue working in a prudent and safe manner.
“During this pandemic, the health of the public is paramount,” Kathryn Leathers wrote in her letter to the city of Lynden. “As such, by and through this letter, the Governor directs you to immediately amend, retract, or rescind your letter dated April 7, 2020 in order to comply with the Governor’s statewide emergency order.”
On Tuesday, Chelan County rescinded its previous order. But in a letter back to Inslee's office, the county's commissioners said the action was "reluctantly taken" and they included a proposed new resolution that would allow for some residential and private construction to continue.
"This is an urgent matter," the commissioners wrote. "We need to take action because we have situations where spoliation and environmental damage will occur if we cannot proceed."
Lynden’s city manager said the city was working on a response to the governor and couldn’t comment on the issue yet. Douglas County did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While open defiance is still uncommon, noncompliance with the governor’s orders appears more rampant as evidenced by the number of complaints the state has received.
Since the end of March, the state of Washington has been taking complaints from citizens reporting alleged violations of the governor’s orders. So far, according to the governor’s office, the state has received nearly 21,000 complaints. While many of them have had to do with individuals gathering in crowds or not socially distancing, a good number are related to businesses operating in defiance of the governor’s orders.
"There are definitely quite a few bars and restaurants and grocery stores also, not socially distancing,” said Sonja Hallum, a senior policy advisor to Inslee.
Car washes, nail salons and car dealerships have also generated a number of complaints, Hallum said, adding that typically when licensing or enforcement officers contact a noncompliant business they get cooperation.
As of Tuesday, one business, a nail salon in Port Orchard, had been forced to close. According to the Department of Licensing (DOL), the salon continued to operate despite multiple warnings to shut down. Ultimately, DOL issued a summary suspension of the salon’s license and the business was closed as of Monday afternoon.
The most visible and overt violation of Inslee’s orders came Sunday – the anniversary of the first shot in the American Revolution, also known as Patriot’s Day -- when an estimated 2,000+ people, some openly carrying firearms, participated in a “Hazardous Liberty” rally at the state capitol in defiance of Inslee’s ban on large crowds.
In addition to members of the far-right Proud Boys and the pro-Trump group Patriot Prayer, the event drew several Republican state lawmakers and candidates for office.
“The people who were there at that rally firmly, and I do too, feel that we have a constitutionally protected right … to peacefully assemble,” said state Rep. Brad Klippert, who is the ranking Republican on the House Public Safety Committee and a Benton County Sheriff’s deputy.
Klippert, and many others who attended the rally, want Inslee to rescind his stay home order and allow businesses to reopen.
“To stay home and to stay healthy is running and hiding, to go back to work in a responsible, safe manner is taking it head on,” Klippert said in an interview.
While Klippert called for a “measured approach to getting back to work,” another Republican lawmaker who attended the rally used fiery language in addressing the crowd. Rep. Robert Sutherland of Snohomish County was quoted by the Seattle Times as saying, “We’re starting a rebellion in Washington, we’re not listening to this governor, we’re taking our state back.”
Sutherland also warned that if the governor took action to enforce the state’s current ban on recreational fishing, it would stoke a “revolution.”
“You send your goons with guns, we will defend ourselves,” said Sutherland, according to the Times.
On Tuesday, Sutherland said he regretted the use of the words “goons” and said his specific opposition to the governor’s orders – and his calls for open rebellion - had to do with restrictions on outdoor activities which he said are good for people’s health.
“These edicts are unconstitutional, they’re illegal and they’re immoral,” Sutherland said, adding that he was channeling the frustration he’s hearing from his constituents. “They’re at a dangerous boiling point.”
In a statement Sunday, Inslee condemned the Republican rhetoric at the rally as “irresponsible” and urged Republican leaders to speak out against it. This week, the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs wrote a letter to Rep. Sutherland calling his statements “troubling” and asking him to clarify them.
On Tuesday, House Republican Leader J.T. Wilcox disavowed Sutherland’s use of the word “goons” and said it doesn’t reflect the views of his caucus towards law enforcement. As for Republican lawmakers openly defying the governor’s ban on large crowds, Wilcox said “they make their own choices” as independently elected officials.
Despite a large presence of state troopers, and guidance from the Attorney General’s office that the governor’s orders are enforceable, the Washington State Patrol allowed the rally to take place and did not issue citations.
“We will continue to approach this with engagement and education as our primary response strategy and, of course, use more aggressive enforcement if needed in response to egregious or purposefully dangerous behaviors,” said Chris Loftis, a patrol spokesperson, in an email.
Similar rallies have been held around the country, including a gathering last Friday at Idaho’s Capitol that drew more than 1000 protesters. In a series of tweets last week, President Donald Trump encouraged planned protests in Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia, which are all headed by Democratic governors. Next month may bring more protests if stay home orders aren’t lifted before then. Already one is planned for May 2 at Oregon’s Capitol.
For his part, Gov. Inslee appeared unpersuaded by the large crowd that had gathered over the weekend outside his office.
“I support free speech,” Inslee said in his statement. “But crowd counts or speeches won’t determine our course. This isn’t about politics. It can only be about doing what is best for the health of all Washingtonians.”
On Tuesday, five conservative Republican state lawmakers called for a “virtual” special session of the state Legislature to chart a path to reopening the economy and address the budget impacts of the public health crisis.
“When the government tells you that ‘we’re going to force you to shut down,’ the government better be working pretty hard to have a plan to get you back to work, and that’s why we have to have this special session,” said state Sen. Doug Ericksen of Whatcom County.
The governor and legislative leaders have said a special session is likely later this year.
*Reporter Tom Banse contributed to this story.
**This story has been updated.