Business Owners’ Testimony for Reopening Bill Contrasts Health Care Workers’ Opposition

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After public testimony for a bill to rapidly reopen businesses, co-sponsor Sen. John Braun, R-Centralia, commended the “staggering number” of people — largely business owners — who signed up to speak in support. 

“Today’s testimony spoke to the desperation people are feeling,” he said. “Thousands of restaurants and other small family businesses statewide have been lost for good — decimated by rules that are not supported by data and science and are enforced by state employees who have not had to skip a single paycheck.”

The bill will not easily pass either Democratically-controlled chambers, with the Department of Health (DOH) and Gov. Jay Inslee firmly opposing the measure, which would allow businesses to reopen in the next phase of Washington’s current reopening plan. State data shows that restaurants and food service locations have been the most common source of documented outbreaks, according to the state Department of Health. 

On Wednesday, supporters included Brian McMenamin, owner of 56 McMenamins locations, including Centralia’s Olympic Club, as well as Dannielle Knutson of Olympia Oyster House. The frustrations voiced by dozens of business owners — of emotional layoffs, missed rent payments and a feeling of being singled out — are similar to those heard locally in Lewis County, as evident by protests in recent weeks and some restaurants flouting COVID-19 restrictions. 

Also represented in testimony was the Washington Hospitality Association, which has been pushing against Inslee’s COVID-19 restrictions for months, calling his phased reopening plan a “roadmap to a near-complete collapse of main street neighborhood restaurants and hospitality business” in a press release this month.

“The hospitality industry is ready. We’re ready to enact and continue strong safety standards. The strongest in the country,” spokeswoman Julia Gorton told lawmakers. 

One chef and restaurant consultant near the Idaho border described residents crossing state lines to dine indoors while other restaurant owners argued that closing indoor dining hasn’t stopped residents from holding private gatherings. Others demurred the research — some conducted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — that links COVID-19 transmission to indoor dining. 

The stream of testimony from business owners was broken up by health care workers describing packed facilities pushed to their brink. One nurse who opposed the bill was Jane Hopkins, executive vice president of the health care union SEIU 1199NW.

“We oppose this bill because our union of 32,000 health care workers are exhausted,” Hopkins said. “We have seen how quickly a surge can overrun our capacity. There is no way to reopen our economy without first getting this virus under control. We have no economy if we’re all sick or dead. We will not have a pandemic response if we ask our health care responders to bear all the risks.” 

Union member Teresa DeLeon, a patient registration coordinator at Swedish Medical Center, brought up the racially disparate impact of the virus. Currently, white Washingtonians are underrepresented in COVID-19 hospitalizations, with Hispanic, Native, Black and other people of color overrepresented, according to Department of Health data. 

“People of color, like me, are the essential workers in our community. People who look like me are the healthcare workers, the delivery driver, the grocery workers, we are also the people who are most likely to get sick from COVID,” she said. “People like me are going to work every day knowing we are targeted by this disease, targeted by structural racism.”

Although frustrations and COVID fatigue continue to grow locally and around the state, the bill is unlikely to get the approval of either Democratically-controlled chambers, or the governor, whose reopening plan sets out a much slower reopening of establishments.

“It’s not the time to move the whole state forward,” said Lacy Fehrenbach, Department of Health deputy secretary for COVID Response. “The bill goes too fast without any health data to support such movement, and doesn’t put out a transparent process for how we would balance the risk of COVID disease on our residents with the opening of our economy and schools in our state.”

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