WENATCHEE — A group of community leaders, businesspeople and private citizens on Friday sued Gov. Jay Inslee to force him to end the COVID-19 state of emergency in Chelan and Douglas counties.
The plaintiffs believe there is no longer an emergency and fear the local economy will collapse if non-essential businesses aren't allowed to reopen soon. The lead plaintiffs are Jose Cuevas, a Wenatchee city councilman, in Chelan County and Dan Sutton, a Douglas County commissioner, in Douglas County.
Thirty-nine people are plaintiffs in the lawsuits.
"The emergency order was specifically tied to the danger of hospitals being overrun," said Joel Ard, attorney for the plaintiffs in both cases. "Thankfully, the data statewide is giving us wonderful news. Nowhere in the state is that presently a danger. The governor can't just change the terms of his emergency from flattening the curve to no positive cases. According to his own terms, the emergency is over."
The lawsuits were filed in the superior courts of Chelan and Douglas counties. A spokesman for Inslee couldn't be reached for comment late Friday afternoon.
According to the Chelan-Douglas Health District, there have been 349 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and nine related deaths in the two counties.
Inslee's Safe Start plan is allowing counties to reopen businesses in phases based on the prevalence of the virus in individual counties and a county's ability to treat and test for COVID-19.
The lawsuit argues that the authorization of authority that the legislature gave Inslee says that when the state of emergency has passed he must lift the proclamation, Ard said. The emergency cited in the proclamation came from the threat of coronavirus patients overwhelming the hospital system.
"That is no longer in anyone's model in any prediction anywhere," Ard said.
The lawsuits were filed in the superior courts of Chelan and Douglas counties and do not seek monetary damages. Thirty business owners, religious leaders and elected officials, acting as private citizens, were parties to the Chelan County suit, with nine in Douglas County.
Elected officials who signed the Chelan County suit were Wenatchee City Council members Ruth Esparza, Linda Herald, Travis Hornsby and Cuevas. Former District 12 Representative Cary Condotta is party to the suit, as well.
The elected officials who took part in the Douglas County lawsuit were all three of the county's commissioners: Mark Straub, Kyle Steinberg and Sutton.
Sutton's family-owned businesses, the Cottage Inn restaurant, closed last month after 80 years in operation due to, he said, the impact of coronavirus restrictions.
Speaking at a press conference Friday, Sutton called for the governor to return authority to local officials.
"We have to also take into consideration is that the virus in and of itself isn't the only disease that we're trying to cure here," Sutton said. "We also have an economic disease -- people that are trying to feed their families, pay their mortgages, keep their kids in clothes ... with no assurance that there is a defined end to that time.
"We have a responsibility to keep the entire community healthy and that means giving confidence to the residents that live here that we have the capacity to open up some of our businesses safely, taking proper precautions and allowing people to go out and participate in the community."
Chelan County Sheriff Brian Burnett supports the lawsuit and compared the situation to wildfire evacuation levels.
"When we get to what we call a trigger point, it activates one of those (evacuation) levels, there's also a trigger point that deactivates it and you have decision-makers making the decisions on a local level here at the fire base, not Florida or Olympia or somewhere else where they're taking reports," Burnett said.
He noted that his department's budget is months behind in local revenues. Douglas County is anticipating a 30% loss in revenue, which could result in fewer law enforcement officers on patrol, Sutton said.
Also participating in the lawsuit as a private citizen was Josh McPherson, pastor of Grace City Church.
"We need to be responsible enough to do this. We need to exercise safety measures. We don't want to put anyone unnecessarily at risk, and yet we don't want to be active in fear," McPherson said.
Shawn Ballard, co-owner of Ballard Ambulance, wasn't party to the lawsuit but supports reopening the two counties. He explained that his crews prepared for an emergency but one never came and they were never overwhelmed as was once feared.
"We don't want to move forward in spite of the virus, but in light of the virus," Ballard said. "We believe we have the resources and leadership to reopen our community in a safe and responsible way, and we believe we have to do it now."