Citing Winlock Mayor Brandon Svenson’s refusal to wear a mask, Lewis County officials canceled an in-person meeting Friday morning. County staff, local mayors and other elected officials filed out of the commissioners’ chambers in the Lewis County Courthouse as Svenson began reciting the state constitution.
Svenson has consistently refused to mask up in the past, although in the past county officials have continued with their meetings, in violation of Washington’s COVID-19 restrictions.
In an email, Commissioner Lindsey Pollock said she was empathetic to the mental, physical and financial strain of the pandemic.
“We understand the desire to be rid of masks; we don’t like them either,” she wrote. “That said, we have a basic human decency to provide as safe a workspace as we can for the folks that support our office. This sense of caring for our fellow person is outside of anything the Governor or his Labor and Industry Department decrees.”
Pollock also noted that not all county staff have been fully vaccinated yet.
In canceling the meeting, County Commissioner Gary Stamper cited concerns over the Department of Labor and Industries (L&I). Stamper was not available to comment after the meeting and Commissioner Sean Swope declined to comment on whether the county had received a complaint.
“I just think that Gary Stamper had no option with everything that’s going on, so he made the right call,” Centralia Mayor Sue Luond told The Chronicle, noting that she had planned to discuss the city’s streetscape project during the meeting. “I walked in one minute and sat down, and the meeting was canceled.”
According to Svenson, “several people” asked him to wear a mask before Friday’s meeting, which is held monthly to allow mayors to discuss city and county matters. Svenson proceeded to repeat false claims that masks “do no good.” When asked about other officials inconvenienced by the cancelation, Svenson shrugged. Officials and members of the public have the option to use Zoom to attend public meetings.
“It’s going to take someone to stand up for our rights,” Svenson said.
Health officials have consistently said masks are proven to limit the spread of COVID-19, which has so far killed over 5,500 people in Washington state. Nationwide, the death toll is approaching 600,000.
Svenson — who said Friday that he’s “not anti-mask, per-se” — has flouted COVID-19 guidance throughout the pandemic. In addition to consistently refusing to wear masks at government meetings, Svenson has presided over large, unmasked gatherings of the Lewis County Republican Party. In March, one such meeting drew more than 50 unmasked people packed into the town’s community building.
Svenson has also thrown his support behind local restaurants who proudly defied pandemic restrictions, speaking at a January rally in front of Farm Boy Drive-in, a Maytown establishment found in contempt and slapped with more than $370,000 in fines for willfully defying public health rules.
Outside of the Twin Cities, Winlock has seen the highest number of COVID-19 cases in Lewis County, according to public health reports. Most recent data shows Winlock representing 7.2% of Lewis County’s COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic. The town represents less than 3% of the county’s population.