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Proposal to move state to Phase 2 gets a hearing

by Angelica Relente, Herald Legislative Writer
| January 21, 2021 1:00 AM

OLYMPIA — A co-owner of a Pacific Northwest burger joint spoke out for people who, she believes, do not have a voice at this time.

“Our employees are some of the hardest working people in the state, and they are not being recognized right now,” Lorri Jones said during a virtual legislative hearing Wednesday. “Imagine going two months without a paycheck … it’s cruel to punish these people for the few people that don’t follow the rules.”

Jones co-owns a chain restaurant called Blazing Onion Burgers, Brews & Spirits. She is one of the many individuals who testified in support of Senate Bill 5114 during the virtual public hearing.

SB 5114 would allow businesses, facilities and institutions in all regions to operate under Phase 2 of Gov. Jay Inslee’s “Healthy Washington - Roadmap to Recovery” plan, according to the bill’s text. The legislature for a year would regularly review public health data to decide if additional actions need to be taken.

Moses Lake Mayor David Curnel said in an interview with the Herald that moving to Phase 2 is “the way to go.” The bill would help local businesses that are doing poorly, especially the restaurants that are only able to offer carryout options at this time.

“They’ve allowed the big box stores to stay open … and then the businesses they’re closing down are the mom-and-pop businesses, which doesn’t make sense to me,” Curnel said.

All regions in the state started at Phase 1 on Jan. 11, according to the bill’s text. In Inslee’s plan, regions must meet all of the four metrics outlined before moving to Phase 2.

Two of the metrics require a region to have a more than 10% decreasing trend in a two-week rate of new COVID-19 cases, as well as new COVID-19 hospital admissions, per 100,000 of population, according to the bill’s text.

The other two metrics require a region to have less than 90% of its ICU beds occupied, and a COVID-19 test positivity rate of less than 10%, according to the bill’s text.

“There’s a ton I could talk about why this bill is right based on data and science — why this bill is right based on the families and individuals that rely on restaurants for their livelihood,” Senate Minority Leader John Braun, R-Centralia, said during the virtual legislative hearing. Braun is the primary sponsor of SB 5114.

Lacy Fehrenbach, deputy secretary for COVID-19 response at the state Department of Health, said SB 5114 is “too fast” and does not have health data to support the move to Phase 2.

The bill does not provide a transparent process for how communities can prevent the spread of COVID-19, Fehrenbach said. Phase 1 of Inslee’s plan is the “circuit breaker phase,” which is designed to stop surges or disease growth.

“While we’ve begun our reopening journey and some regions may be closed, it is not the time to move the whole state forward,” Fehrenbach said during the virtual legislative hearing.

Othello Mayor Shawn Logan testified in support of SB 5114 during the virtual legislative hearing. He said his community has been hit hard by Inslee’s restrictions, which are “unwarranted” in rural areas that have a few COVID-19 cases.

“A number of our businesses have had to permanently close their doors,” Logan said during the virtual legislative hearing.

Logan said some Othello businesses are unsure if there is a possibility of reopening. Moving to Phase 2 would allow local businesses to regain what they have lost.

Teresa DeLeon, a health care worker at Swedish Medical Center in Seattle, testified in opposition to SB 5114. She said her and co-workers’ biggest fear is taking COVID-19 home and putting their families at risk.

“People of color like me are the essential workers in our community,” DeLeon said during the virtual legislative hearing. “People who look like me are the health care workers, the delivery drivers (and) the grocery workers. We are also the people who are most likely to get sick from COVID.”

Neeru Kaur, a respiratory therapist at Harborview Medical Center in Seattle, also testified in opposition to the bill. She said health care workers are tired and overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients.

“When you contract COVID, you’re in the hospital, not for a week or two — you’re there for months,” Kaur said during the virtual legislative hearing. “That puts a huge economic strain on the health care system and the families.”

Logan said in an interview with the Herald that he agrees with the business owners who testified in support of the bill, saying restaurants and other institutions have not proven to be “super spreaders” of COVID-19.

“Phase 2 just means moving from not being able to go in and use those types of facilities or go in and sit down in a restaurant, to being able to,” Logan said.

Curnel, who is also a physician at Confluence Health in Moses Lake, said he does not think the legislature is ignoring the possibility there might be an increase in COVID-19 cases if the bill passes.

This is why the legislature will monitor and make adjustments if necessary, Curnel said, as the bill currently states.

“Even being a physician,” Curnel said, “I still agree with this bill.”

Senators had not voted on SB 5114 as of Wednesday.

Also Wednesday, Rep. Drew MacEwen introduced the companion to SB 5114, labeled House Bill 1321, and it had its first reading.