Republican lawmakers in Olympia have drafted a plan that would reopen sectors of the economy. Unlike Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee, they say it is possible start doing so safely right now.
In a conversation with The Columbian’s editorial board Friday, a delegation of GOP senators from Southwest Washington — Ann Rivers of La Center, Lynda Wilson of Vancouver and John Braun of Centralia — argued that companies will regulate themselves to ensure the health of their workers and customers during the COVID-19 outbreak.
“As it turns out it’s really bad business to put your employees and your customers in a dangerous and risky situation,” Rivers said. “They’re mindful about safe ways to operate their business.”
“Don’t forget the role of the customer and personal accountability,” Rivers added. “People will be reporting frightening things that they’re seeing to the health department.”
Their proposal, titled the Legislative Republicans’ Safe Economic Restart Plan, would designate certain operations as “low-risk” and allow them to resume. The examples listed in the document include auto sales, solo landscape services, contractors, hairdressers, dentists and accountants.
Gov. Jay Inslee announced later Friday that construction could resume on some retail and residential projects as long as workers take certain safety precautions. Other nonessential businesses will remain closed until at least May 4, when Inslee’s current stay-at-home order expires.
“We will not lift measures until health experts and data say it’s safe to do so,” the governor said on Twitter. “Let me be clear: we are nowhere near ready to reopen broadly. To do so now would be incredibly irresponsible and put Washingtonians in danger.”
The state senators told The Columbian they wrote their plan after talking with business owners across the state. Some, they said, are frustrated with the duration of the closure, while others are finding it hard to pay their workers enough to compete with the state’s robust unemployment package.
People out of work due to the coronavirus are currently eligible for an additional $600 per week from the state’s Employment Security Department, on top of normal unemployment benefits.
“What we’re hearing from business owners now is that they can’t get their employees to come back to work because they’re making so much money on unemployment,” Rivers said, adding that she spoke with a grocery store owner in Yakima who had to raise wages by $2 an hour in order to coax employees to work.
“We have to look for ways to incentivize them to re-engage in the economy,” Rivers said.
The legislators’ plan would form a Restart Task Force that would guide a phase-in process for all businesses with certain safety precautions, like requiring staff and customers to wear personal protective equipment and adhere to social-distancing rules.
They’re also calling on the governor to disclose “the ‘metrics’ that must be met before the business-closure order can be lifted or amended.” Inslee has said that in order to reopen the economy statewide, Washington would need to show 14 consecutive days of falling infection rates.
The document also pushes for widespread testing for antibodies that may provide protection against COVID-19. It’s unclear at this point whether the antibodies amount to immunity, though some experts studying the virus, including Dr. Anthony Fauci, believe it’s likely.
“Workers found to have the antibodies resulting from the COVID-19 infection will be immediately eligible for employment,” the senators wrote.
Wilson, who is currently storing 100 of the antibody tests in her home, said she’s been struggling to get the state’s health department on board with antibody testing. Wilson cited a study released Thursday that indicated one in five New Yorkers may have unknowingly caught and recovered from the virus, which would indicate that the infection is far more widespread and less fatal than initially thought.
“What I can’t understand is the pushback from the Department of Health in general,” Wilson said.
The group is also calling on the state to ease regulatory and tax burdens on businesses. The plan would freeze any new non-coronavirus related rules from state regulatory agencies, as well as waive one year’s worth of sales taxes and B&O taxes for small businesses.
Ultimately, Braun said, his constituents want to get back to work for economic and mental health reasons. Whether they can should depend on if their workplace is safe, not on whether their jobs have been deemed “essential,” Braun said.
He added it’s “not necessarily a bad thing” for more people to be exposed to the coronavirus. The claim is in opposition to guidance for the Centers for Disease Control, which emphasizes that the best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to the virus.
“It will speed our path, frankly, toward herd immunity,” Braun said.