Inslee says loss of business licenses, arrests a last resort for enforcing COVID-19 order

Gov. Jay Inslee listens to a a question during his Monday press conference. 

State officials including Gov. Jay Inslee and law enforcement heads are asking for voluntary compliance to the governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, stating that citations, loss of business licenses and even arrests are possible for those to refuse to follow the restrictions.

Inslee, along with Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, spoke at a press conference today, March 30, addressing different ways that the order can be enforced. Inslee on March 23 announced the order, which prohibited private and public gatherings and shuttered non-essential businesses for at least two weeks as part of a statewide response to stop the spread of novel coronavirus causing COVID-19.

Inslee said that although it was “very gratifying to see the vast majority of Washingtonians comply with this order,” thousands of calls were coming in across the state with concerns over noncompliance.

Inslee said the enforcement approach could be seen as a “tiered” system, beginning with warnings from state and local authorities for noncompliance, and going to citations, suspension of permits and revocation of business licenses.

If those actions still weren’t enough to enforce compliance, Inslee said authorities could refer the business or individual to the state attorney general’s office.

“Taking the people to court is the very last thing that will be considered and should not be necessary under any conditions for folks who really value the health of their loved ones and respect for everyone in our community,” Inslee said.

Inslee said noncompliance complaints could be made through coronavirus.wa.gov, asking residents seeing violations not to call 911 unless a situation involves an immediate threat to safety. He added that decisions to pursue complaints would be at the local level.

“We’re not going to tell local law enforcement how to do their jobs,” Inslee said.

From the attorney general’s perspective, Ferguson said it was his office’s goal for “100 percent voluntary compliance” with Inslee’s orders.

“I don’t want to have to use the powers of my office to hold accountable those who intentionally violate the governor’s emergency orders, but I want to be very clear that if necessary, I will,” Ferguson said. “The reason is simple. Lives literally depend upon it.”

Ferguson said nonessential businesses that remained out of compliance after receiving a warning were committing an unfair labor practice. He also mentioned a prior order placing a moratorium on evictions for 30 days beginning March 18, which he said his office had received complaints from tenants whose landlords were attempting to violate the order.

For law enforcement, Batiste touched on the different avenues police can take to ensure compliance, saying that “as a last resort we can arrest people.”

“That’s the last thing we want to do,” Batiste said.

In terms of potentially extending the two-week order or taking additional steps, Inslee said a decision wasn’t made, but given what data was available, “it is very highly likely that there will be some further measures that are associated with ‘Stay Home, Stay Healthy.’”

While some parts of the state had data showing current measures were being effective, Inslee said there were “disturbing” trends elsewhere. He mentioned that testing for COVID-19 in some counties had infection rates two to three times higher than Washington saw in previous weeks.

“We will be looking at those numbers in the upcoming days to decide what is the next step,” Inslee said.

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