Cite hardships faced by local businesses
Recognizing the “gravity of responding to the unknowns of the COVID-19 pandemic” but pointing to the potential of a revolt from restive residents, the Okanogan County commissioners have asked the state to let them decide how to safely re-open the county’s economy.
In a letter to Gov. Jay Inslee sent last Wednesday (April 29), the commissioners urged the governor to grant them the discretion to draw on their knowledge of county residents and businesses. They asked the state for professional guidance and resources to help.
“It is time we recognize that under such stressful conditions that revolt is a new reality. Mistrust of government continues to grow while citizens are not only preparing to act out but are already practicing civil disobedience which can only hamper our well-intended efforts,” they wrote.
While Inslee hasn’t responded directly to the commissioners, the phased recovery plan he announced Monday (May 4) does allow 10 small, rural counties that show little spread of the coronavirus to apply for a variance to reopen sooner. But Okanogan County isn’t one of them.
“Not every part of our state is experiencing this pandemic in the same way,” Inslee said in his plan. “Therefore, some counties with lower numbers of cases and deaths, as well as appropriate levels of PPE [personal protective equipment] and hospital capacity, may explore plans for reopening businesses sooner.”
To qualify, a county must have gone at least three weeks without a new case of COVID-19. Okanogan County recorded its latest case on Wednesday (April 29), and cases nearly doubled in the previous week. Testing capacity is growing — the county has been able to test more than 100 additional people in the past week, a total of 749 tests.
The commissioners complained that some state restrictions don’t apply to less-populous counties, creating unintended consequences. The state’s definition of essential businesses has allowed national chains like Walmart to remain open — selling food and clothing — while local small businesses have been shuttered for nearly two months, putting their survival at risk, the commissioners said at their May 4 meeting.
The restrictions make it impossible for people in resource-based and hands-on industries — who can’t do their jobs from home — to work, Okanogan County Commissioner Andy Hover said.
Lawsuit challenges governor
Two Okanogan County residents, beauty salon owner Patty DeTro — the wife of County Commissioner Jim DeTro — and auto dealer Jason Bernica, are plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit filed against Gov. Jay Inslee alleging that his executive order “created an unacceptable tyranny” and violated the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the plaintiffs’ civil rights.
The lawsuit was filed May 1 in U.S. District Court, Western Division of Washington. The suit says plaintiffs suffered at least $100,000 in damages as a result of Inslee’s order and seeks unspecified redress.
The plaintiffs’ business were deemed non-essential and summarily closed. The plaintiffs received no notice or hearing and were denied due process, the suit contends.
Other plaintiffs include anti-tax activist and Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Eyman.
Okanogan County’s businesses have experienced “substantial hardship” from the coronavirus closure, the letter said. Businesses learned resiliency from wildfires and floods and are confident they can take appropriate measures to protect their community and are “actively preparing to open on May 5,” it said.
While the letter doesn’t specifically explain that date, Inslee’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order was due to expire on May 4. However, two days after the commissioners sent their letter, Inslee extended the order through the end of May, incorporating the phased approach to reopening.
With the extension of the governor’s order, the main changes Okanogan County residents will see this week are the reopening of state lands and fishing, and easing of restrictions on some businesses.
The commissioners voted 2 to 1 not to extend their resolution restricting all overnight lodging. Because state guidelines that restrict travel already prohibit overnight stays — except for essential businesses — the county doesn’t need to duplicate them, Hover said.
County Commissioner Chris Branch voted “no,” saying that since the county’s resolution was already set to expire on May 4, a vote not to extend it “doesn’t do anything.”
For now, the commissioners appear to view their actions as largely symbolic. They don’t have the authority to re-open the county’s economy since counties don’t issue business licenses, except to a few industries like pawn shops, Hover said.
Some people question whether the virus is real or a conspiracy, Branch said. “We’re dealing with something very real and have to make a statement about whether we feel social distancing is worth doing and whether it’s making a difference,” he said.
Hover agreed that social distancing has made a difference, but he criticized inequalities in the state’s plan. While businesses that have been forced to close are struggling, essential businesses like hardware stores say business is booming, with people doing projects at home, he said. Hover believes smaller retailers can follow the same social-distancing practices.
Lots of businesses are asking, “If I go broke, what good is a business license?” County Commissioner Jim DeTro said.
“When this order went into place, there was not enough thought into which businesses could maintain social distance and keep people safe. Now that it’s in place, we can’t just change it,” Hover said in an interview after the meeting. Since the commissioners haven’t been granted jurisdictional control, the county will follow the same phased approach as the rest of the state, he said.
Their letter to Inslee didn’t specify steps they would take to protect the public. Okanogan County Public Health and the county’s Economic Alliance are already working on guidelines to help businesses re-open safely, Hover said.
Law enforcement officers have emphasized education about the Stay Home, Stay Healthy directive and haven’t cited anyone for lack of compliance, Okanogan County Sheriff Tony Hawley said. Hawley also contacted the governor’s office to explain that the county “lends itself to social distancing efforts by our rural geography and lifestyle,” he said in a letter to local newspapers that advocates for a transition to local control.
Phased state plan
Inslee’s phased plan for re-opening allows more activities and businesses in four stages. The first phase started Tuesday (May 5), allowing outdoor activities like fishing, hunting, and golf. It also reopens state parks and other state lands for day use only.
Existing construction projects were permitted to resume last week — with restrictions. Phase 1 adds auto sales, retail with curbside pick-up, and drive-in spiritual services once the state issues industry-specific requirements, which are due by May 15.
Counties can apply to the state Department of Health for a variance to move more quickly to Phase 2. The counties must submit documentation from their public health departments, hospitals, and commissioners showing that they meet the health requirements for an easing of restrictions.
Subsequent phases add restaurants and bars, more retail activity, concert venues, and larger gatherings, but there will be at least three weeks between each phase. Regions of the state must meet targets for disease rate, testing, and hospital capability before advancing.
|Phase 1||Phase 2||Phase 3||Phase 4|
(groceries, health care, hardware)
(curbside pick-up only)
(restricted in-store purchases)
(< 50% capacity, max table: 5)
(telework still encouraged)
(< 75% capacity, max table: 10)
(< 25% capacity)
(< 50% capacity)
(< 50% capacity) libraries and museums all other businesses except nightclubs and events > 50 people
|night clubs and concert venues
large sporting events
|all outdoor recreation
(< 5 people outside household)
pools and rec facilities
(< 50% capacity)
|all recreational activity|
|Travel||essential travel only||`non-essential travel near home||non-essential travel||non-essential travel|
drive-in spiritual services
(1 household per vehicle)
|< 5 people outside household||< 50 people||> 50 people|
|High-risk populations (65+, medical conditions)||Stay Home, Stay Healthy||Stay Home, Stay Healthy||Stay Home, Stay Healthy||public interaction
(with physical distancing)
Source: Adapted from Washington’s Phased Approach
Goals for disease rates, testing and hospital capacity must be met before advancing to the next phase.