The latest round of shutdown orders from Gov. Jay Inslee, designed to slow the surging coronavirus pandemic, again point out the need for a special session of the Legislature.
From the beginning of the pandemic in March, Inslee and his staff have decided upon the best course of action for the state. In the process, they have left 147 elected legislators on the sidelines, eschewing input and limiting the viewpoints that contribute to such decisions.
Early in the pandemic, this was understandable. Quick action was necessary rather than extensive deliberation, with the unknown qualities of coronavirus dictating that flexibility was paramount.
But now, eight months into the pandemic, we have a clearer understanding of the health risks and the economic impact. We have a better idea of how restaurants and retail outlets are affected by shutdowns, and what kind of assistance is needed to keep the state’s economy from collapsing.
Last week, with COVID-19 numbers climbing, Inslee ordered renewed shutdowns. The latest restrictions limit restaurants and bars, allowing only to-go orders or outdoor seating. Gyms, theaters, bowling alleys, museums, zoos and aquariums must close, while retail outlets — including grocery stores — must restrict patrons to 25 percent of capacity.
With a spike in coronavirus infections, such orders may be necessary. But they fail to address the economic pressure that will be placed on business owners and employees. State Rep. Larry Hoff, R-Vancouver, said: “He can’t possibly understand what the effect is on these small businesses. He’s continuing to get paid. These businesses are shut down and scratching to survive.”
That is why the Legislature must be called into session. Emergency relief is required, and input from lawmakers is needed.
“All of us would like to have had the financial aspects of this totally resolved when we announced this today,” Inslee said last week.
The fact that state leaders do not have that worked out is unconscionable. For months, health experts have warned of a coronavirus surge when fall arrived and people spent more time inside. Rather than financially prepare for a likely round of shutdowns, Inslee focused solely on the health aspects of the coronavirus pandemic.
On Friday, the governor announced a $135 million plan to assist businesses that are hurting. That breaks down as $70 million in business grants, $30 million in business loans, $20 million in rental assistance and $15 million to help low-income residents pay utility bills.
Is that enough? Is it targeted in the most effective direction? Those questions should be up to the Legislature, with lawmakers in charge of the state’s purse strings.
Meanwhile, Inslee has said mitigation of the economic damage from the latest shutdown is somewhat dependent on the federal government. But Congress has demonstrated little urgency in developing another coronavirus relief package, leaving states to haplessly wait for the cavalry.
If lawmakers pass an aid package and the federal government later comes through with funding, that money can be used to pay back the state government.
If Inslee does call a special session of the Legislature, it will be crucial for lawmakers to remain focused on the financial aspect of the pandemic. Now is not the time to critique shutdown orders or question whether Washington residents should wear masks.
Instead, it is the time to help those residents weather the economic storm that has accompanied those orders.