“Inconsistent.” “Disastrous.” “Senseless.” Those are just some of the words being used to describe Washington Gov. Jay Inslee’s plan for reopening the state – and they’re the words of his fellow Democrats. It’s a sign of rising frustration over the slow pace of getting restaurants, gyms and other businesses open again.
From the start of the pandemic, Governor Inslee faced criticism from conservatives upset about his mask mandate and stay home order. But over the last week, there’s been a noticeable shift. Now members of Inslee’s own party are assailing him.
“[I]t is clear that the governor’s plan exhibits a disastrous disconnect with the realities of our communities and, as their elected representatives, we must demand a reopening plan that is fair and sound,” wrote a trio of Olympia Peninsula Democrats in a recent statement.
The statement said they had “lost faith” in Inslee’s approach to reopening the economy and said they had no choice but to speak out in opposition.
“It came out of a decision to, in essence, kind of reopen the I-5 corridor and leave vast stretches of the rural communities untouched,” said Democratic state Rep. Mike Chapman of Port Angeles during a Facebook Live event with the Washington Policy Center (WPC).
Chapman was referring to the fact the Puget Sound region has now qualified to advance to Phase 2, as has a second region that includes Thurston County. That’s when restaurants and other businesses can begin to reopen. Chapman insists that Clallam and Jefferson counties, in his legislative district, are in a good position to reopen, but can’t because they’re part of a broader region that still hasn’t met the governor’s metrics.
“Quite frankly Clallam and Jefferson Counties have consistently had some of the lowest rates, if not the lowest rates, per 100-thousand, our hospitals have plenty of capacity,” Chapman said.
Under Inslee’s plan, regions are measured not by their overall COVID-19 case rates, but by their ability to reduce new cases and hospital admissions by 10 percent or better. That means a region with a higher overall case count could open before a region with a lower case count.
Even some local public health officials are now questioning Inslee’s regional approach. Chapman pointed to an article in the local paper where the top public health doctors in Clallam and Jefferson Counties called it “insane” and “crazy” that King, Snohomish and Pierce Counties had been allowed to reopen while their counties were stuck, for now, in Phase 1.
In response, Washington’s new Secretary of Health Umair Shah acknowledged a difference of opinion even with the ranks of public health officials.
“We do respect those that are on the ground and their viewpoints; that doesn’t always mean that we’re going to agree,” said Shah, who until recently headed local public health in the Houston, Texas area.
Criticism is also coming from city and county governments dismayed over the regional, rather than county-by-county, approach to reopening. According to the governor’s office, the regional approach was based on existing emergency medical services areas and a desire to ensure that regional hospital capacity wasn’t overwhelmed.
“The new metrics cannot be justified with science, risk, or equity. We insist on a re-opening strategy that considers case rates, not just decreases, that doesn’t artificially tie diverse counties into a failed regional approach, and that moves more quickly to safely re-open businesses,” the letter said.
While the Whatcom County Council is a nonpartisan body, the majority of councilmembers identify as Democrats.
At a recent news conference, Inslee responded forcefully to the mounting criticism.
“People can call us insane, unscientific, irrational -- they can use any adjectives they want, but what we’re doing is working,” Inslee insisted.
Specifically, Inslee noted Washington has one of the lowest COVID death rates of any state in the nation.
“We’re not going to go backwards,” he said. “That’s just not the Washington way.”
Inslee’s staff also noted that the North region, which includes Whatcom, Skagit, San Juan and Island Counties, has recently experienced a 70 percent increase in COVID case rates and a 17 percent increase in hospitalizations.
Even before this latest round of criticism, Inslee was facing pushback over his reopening plan. Democratic state Senator Mark Mullet of Issaquah owns and operates a Zeek’s pizzeria and three Ben and Jerry’s ice cream shops. He’s also the co-sponsor of a stalled Republican bill that would allow all regions of the state to advance to Phase 2 immediately. Mullet said with case counts on the decline and vaccines on the rise he’s even more convinced this could be done safely.
“We’re in a public health position where we could have the entire state in Phase 2 and then monitor it based on regions and then intervene if someone starts screwing up,” Mullet said.
Inslee did recently change the criteria for advancing to Phase 2. Instead of requiring regions to meet four of four metrics, they now only have to meet three of four. He also changed the evaluation period to decide if a region will advance or regress to every two weeks, instead of every week.
At the least, Mullet said he wants Inslee to go back to re-evaluating regions weekly for purposes of determining if they’re ready to advance to Phase 2. Mullet said he’s been working with Senate Majority Leader Andy Billig in hopes of getting Inslee to agree to put more flexibility into his plan. For his part, Billig acknowledged the frustration people are feeling.
“We want to get things back to normal,” Billig said during a weekly legislative leadership news conference.
But Billig also defended Inslee’s approach – echoing the governor’s point that it’s put Washington in a better position that most other states.
“Now, that’s not to say that we shouldn’t focus also on how to get the balance right in terms of reopening,” said Billig, adding that he’s hopeful other regions will soon qualify to advance to Phase 2.
At that same legislative news conference, House Majority Leader Pat Sullivan also came to Inslee's defense. "There's no playbook to help guide us through this," Sullivan said.
As for minority Republicans, they’re keeping up their drumbeat of criticism of the governor. Recently, state Senator Mark Schoesler of Ritzville called for Asotin County on the border with Idaho to be reopened.
“The plan the governor put out for multi-counties really isn’t working and doesn’t look at the struggles border counties face,” Schoesler said in a statement.
Republicans have also introduced bills designed to rein in the governor’s emergency powers.
“One person should not be directing every aspect of the state over the last year. We’re almost to a year now and we’ve had one person making those decisions and that’s not right,” Republican state Sen. Curtis King told WPC.
But so far Democratic leaders in the Legislature seem disinclined to second guess Inslee’s reopening plan or try to curb his emergency powers.
*This story has been corrected to note that Rep. Chapman and Sen. Curtis spoke to the Washington Policy Center, not the Association of Washington Business.