Two lawmakers from Southwest Washington acknowledged the dangers of the coronavirus after they attended a Sunday protest of stay-at-home orders, saying they did so to amplify their disapproval of Gov. Jay Inslee.
But Washington state Reps. Vicki Kraft, R-Vancouver, and Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, believe the worst effects of the pandemic have passed and it’s time to plan for some industries to get back to work.
Washingtonians have stayed home under Inslee’s orders since March 23. Inslee initially planned the order to last two weeks, before extending it to May 4.
“I feel like most people feel like that’s long enough, by far, and it’s time to move ahead and start safely reopening Washington,” Kraft said.
Both lawmakers spoke at the weekend protest in Olympia, where an estimated 2,000 people attended. By attending, they broke Inslee’s order and the widely held guidance of public health officials. The rally was held amid calls by President Donald Trump to “liberate” several other states with stay-at-home orders.
One Washington state lawmaker, Rep. Robert Sutherland, R-Granite Falls, went so far as to call for a rebellion if Inslee continues to ban activities like fishing as a way to slow the spread of the virus.
Since the first case in January, COVID-19 has infected more than 12,000 people across Washington and killed about 650.
Kraft said she wore a mask to the rally at first but took it off to give a speech about reopening some industries. She noted Washington’s infections are “trending down and in the right direction,” and said she felt “completely” safe standing in crowds at the Washington Capitol.
When asked about the possibility that people at the protest could carry the virus without showing symptoms, she said more testing needs to be done.
Walsh acknowledged the virus is a “serious risk,” but said he didn’t feel like it was a significant risk to his or his family’s health. He said his parents are still alive and if he lived with them he might have reconsidered.
“I mean, life is a risk. I could have gotten in a car wreck driving to Olympia to get to the rally,” he said.
Both Republicans said attending the protest gave them a bigger microphone for their messages: It’s time to plan to reopen some industries, and that the pandemic has highlighted what they see as an overreach by the governor’s office.
The protest, Walsh said, “crystallized some governance criticisms and policy criticisms that, however strongly I made them in a letter to the governor or something, wouldn’t have gotten as much traction.”
As the deadline for Inslee’s stay-at-home order approaches, Kraft and Walsh said they want to see plans outlined for industries to resume. They noted a proposal by Republican leaders calling for construction, dentists and car dealerships to reopen.
Walsh said decisions on reopening should be given to local governments and health departments — instead of state officials.
“The states in Oregon and Washington should be consultative, advisory, and as much as possible I’d like to see decisions made about who is open for business and who is not made at the county or even city level,” he said.
Both also said Inslee’s authority during the pandemic is concerning.
“I have a lot of concern right now with the level of power — I’m just going to say it — that the governor is taking,” Kraft said. She said she worried Inslee will extend the shutdown past May 4.
“At this point I have real concerns,” she said.
The two lawmakers’ have seen the novel coronavirus impact their constituents in different ways.
Walsh’s district, which runs from Cowlitz County to the Washington Coast, has had very few reported cases and almost no deaths. Kraft’s, in rural Clark County, has seen hundreds of positive cases and a handful of deaths.
When asked how she would tell some of her constituents who’ve contracted the virus about her desire to see businesses reopen, Kraft noted that the elderly are most vulnerable and may need to continue to stay home.
She also expressed hope that those who have recovered may now have immunity. The World Health Organization currently says it’s not clear if that’s the case.
“Some of those things obviously are to be determined,” Kraft said. “We can reopen safely where we can.”