Jay Inslee

Washington state governor Jay Inslee talks at a press conference about the coronavirus outbreak in downtown Seattle Monday, March 16, 2020. 

Gov. Jay Inslee is ordering all Washington residents to stay at home, except for crucial activities like buying groceries, seeking medical care or going to work at essential businesses.

The new order, which Inslee was set to announce in a live televised address at 5:30 p.m. Monday, also requires closure of non-essential businesses, to fight the spread of the novel coronavirus.

The stay-at-home order goes into effect immediately, and will last for two weeks, the governor’s office said. It bans all gatherings of people for social, spiritual and recreational purposes, whether by public or private groups. That includes weddings and funerals. Any non-essential businesses still operating must close in 48 hours.

Washington’s definition of “essential business” will be modeled on lists developed by the federal government and by California. Those have significant exceptions — allowing restaurants to still offer take-out and delivery, in addition to exempting pharmacies, food banks, convenience stores, banks and laundromats, among other services.

Inslee’s action came the same day Boeing announced it will suspend its Puget Sound manufacturing and maintenance operations for two weeks, beginning Wednesday, after a worker at the company’s Everett plant died of a COVID-19 infection.

Inslee, who had up until now resisted the drastic step, followed a wave of similar decrees by states including California, New York, Oregon, and by some Washington cities, including Everett and Edmonds, which have in the last few days shuttered non-essential business and ordered residents to stay home.

In California, which was the first to order such statewide restrictions, 40 million residents were told by Gov. Gavin Newsom to go into home isolation starting Thursday evening, marking the most stringent U.S. effort yet to stop the spread of the disease. On Monday, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown issued a similar directive.

The global pandemic has been especially severe in Washington, which had the first reported outbreak in the U.S., and had 2,221 known cases and at least 110 deaths as of Monday.

In response, Inslee has issued an escalating array of orders banning large public gatherings and has urged residents to voluntarily self-isolate as much as possible. One March 12 he ordered public schools in three counties to close. Then, a day later he ordered all K-12 schools statewide to close through April 24.

But as of last week, he had said it was not yet time to order Washingtonians to remain at home, and that the state still had unused tools before such a step would need to be invoked.

While many Washingtonians have heeded public-health advice and previous directives to encourage social distancing, “some are still not grasping the seriousness of this pandemic,” Inslee’s office wrote in a series of talking points distributed to other elected leaders Monday.

Inslee cited traffic data last Friday as evidence that residents in some parts of Washington weren’t taking his pleas to stay home seriously enough, lamenting relatively modest reductions on the Tacoma Narrows Bridge and along State Route 167.

Traffic dropped on those toll corridors and on most others across the state over the weekend. But the reductions apparently didn’t adequately reassure the governor.

The governor has faced increasing pressure to impose more forceful measures amid reports that some people have been ignoring public-health warnings and continuing to gather in close proximity at some parks and beaches.

Earlier Monday, Rick Hicks, secretary treasurer of Teamsters Local 174, blistered Inslee in an open letter, saying the delay in a strict stay-at-home order risked the health of union workers who deliver groceries, UPS packages, and work in sanitation and law enforcement.

“I have supported you because I believed it was in the interests of the Labor community to support politicians that at least appear to care about our issues. However, in this moment of crisis, it no longer matters what you say – the only thing that matters is what actions you take. And by refusing to protect our members with a lockdown order, you are demonstrating exactly how little working people mean to you,” Hicks wrote.

Last week, University of Washington Judith Malmgren, an affiliate assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, said she favored immediately implementing a shelter-in-place order for King County.

State law gives Inslee broad authority to issue a stay-at-home order, University of Washington law professor Hugh Spitzer said.

Washington’s “state of emergency” statute says the governor can prohibit “any number of persons … from assembling or gathering on the public streets, parks or other open areas of the state, either public or private.”

It also says he can ban “the sale, purchase or dispensing” of commodities or goods “to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.” There’s even a catch-all provision that says he can bar “other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited” to keep the public safe.

The governor’s powers “are very, very strong, and they’re meant to be strong, because they’re really for significant emergencies — everything from wars, to riots to epidemics,” Spitzer said.

Violating the statewide order could, in theory, result in misdemeanor criminal prosecution.

Washington’s emergency law says a person who refuses to leave public property when directed by an official to do so would be guilty of a misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine. A person who willfully violates an emergency order would be guilty of a gross misdemeanor, which carries a punishment of up to 364 days in jail and a $5,000 fine.

However, in states where stay-at-home orders already exist, officers haven’t yet been making arrests. In New York, where Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week issued a stay-at-home order, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would ask police officers to “remind people to separate and spread out,” and Police Commissioner Dermot Shea said making arrests would be “a last resort.”

In Seattle, where playgrounds and sports courts were closed Friday, police officers used loudspeakers over the weekend to remind people to keep their distance, warning that lack of compliance could result in parks being closed and people being prosecuted for trespassing.

The officers and Seattle Parks and Recreation workers noticed that people “immediately understood and complied,” said Kelsey Nyland, spokeswoman for Mayor Jenny Durkan.

“The departments are thinking of this primarily as an education and outreach issue, rather than enforcement,” Nyland said in an email.

During a Monday meeting, Seattle City Councilmember Lisa Herbold said she was disturbed by reports of people congregating on Alki Beach. She said better communication may be needed.

“We should explore more interventions like signage, physical barriers, amplified messages to disperse and the deployment of trusted community members,” she said. “Enforcement measures should only be considered after clear emergency orders are in place and other strategies to encourage voluntary compliance are shown to be ineffective.”

Councilmember Tammy Morales, meanwhile, shared concerns about people who don’t speak English and in marginalized communities who may not be getting as much information about emergency actions. Those people could be at risk for enforcement “because they don’t know that information,” she said.

There is some evidence that steps Washington has already taken to limit physical interaction — banning larger gatherings, closing schools and banning sit-in dining at restaurants — have slowed the growth of new infections. The number of new, confirmed cases reported each day by the state Department of Health (DOH) has been rising steadily, but not at the exponential pace of places like Italy and New York City.

A week ago, the state reported 135 new, confirmed cases. On Sunday, the state reported 205. Testing in the state has increased from  a little over 2,000 a day a week ago, to around 4,000 a day now, while the percentage of positive tests has remained steady, according to DOH numbers. The rate of positive tests has fluctuated between 5% and 7% for the last 10 days.

On Sunday, a Boeing worker at the Everett plant died of a COVID-19 infection. The company on Monday announced it will temporarily suspend its Puget Sound factory operations beginning Wednesday. The company has said 29 of its employees have been confirmed to have the disease.

President Donald Trump approved a “major disaster” declaration for Washington on Sunday, making federal money available for crisis counseling in the state. But several other categories of aid Inslee sought in his request for a disaster declaration, including disaster unemployment services, mass care and household program assistance, remain under review by the White House, the governor’s office said.

Staff reporters David Gutman and Christine Clarridge contributed reporting.

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