By Perry Dozier
The following op-ed appeared in the Prosser Record-Bulletin and Dayton Chronicle during the week of March 1.
Three weeks ago, Southeast Washington dodged a bullet. Gov. Jay Inslee announced every other area of the state would move to Phase 2 of his COVID lockdown plan, allowing partial reopenings of restaurants, gyms, and other businesses.
But not ours, because of alarmingly high hospitalization rates.
It was a mistake. A single hospital in Walla Walla misreported its COVID figures. If it wasn’t for the eagle-eyed county officials who caught the error and brought it to the attention of the Department of Health, businesses from Ellensburg to Walla Walla might still be under the most stringent lockdown orders today.
Some might call this good news, because the mistake was discovered quickly and partial reopenings in our area started Feb. 15, just like they did in other regions of the state. But really we ought to see it as an indication of the arbitrary and troubling decision-making process we have seen from the governor’s office as it attempts to manage the outbreak with top-down decrees.
Today business owners and workers across the state are anxiously awaiting the governor’s next step. What goals must we meet to advance to Phase 3? He’s had seven weeks, and he still doesn’t have a plan.
At a news conference Thursday [Feb. 25], the governor said he plans to have a plan, but first he must plan a planning process to plan what ought to be in the plan. It might be soon. It might take weeks. That’s the plan.
We understand COVID is serious business, but I hope you’ll understand why those on my side of the aisle are skeptical of the governor’s claims that science governs every decision. We legislators represent our communities, and like every resident of the 16th Legislative District, I know it’s nearly a three-hour drive to Ellensburg, through mountains and sagebrush. Yet a non-existent spike in Walla Walla would have been enough to keep Ellensburg closed. There have been many other decisions that defy common sense.
Unfortunately, the Legislature – the people’s voice — has been shut out of the decision-making process. First, by the fact the Legislature was not in session when the outbreak began. Then, once we got to Olympia, the first important act of the majority party was to hand all authority to the governor.
So we need him to appreciate the reality beyond Olympia. There are really two death tolls in this pandemic. Thousands of businesses are closing permanently – 2,500 restaurants in the first six months alone. Now we’re seeing a ripple effect as these closures affect other businesses that support them.
And when businesses go under, jobs for working families go with them. The immediate issue is that Phase 2 permits only 25 percent occupancy of restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues. There is no scientific justification. They need to be at 50 percent to stay in the black. It’s time to increase capacity and move to Phase 3.
Recent reports from DOH and the Institute for Disease Modeling show that we can safely open schools. Phase 3 should include efforts to safely open our schools for in-person learning. It’s time.
We remain one of the most locked down states one year after the pandemic. Our COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations have been in sharp decline. More freedom must be a component of Phase 3.
Vaccinations are rising every day in the state. Our citizens, businesses, and schools are proving they can operate safely with appropriate masking, social distancing, and safety precautions. We must hope the governor recognizes the need for balance, and the danger to our economy. We expect leadership from the governor – and a plan would be a good start.
Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, represents the 16th Legislative District.