Originally published in the Seattle Times.
The coronavirus does not choose its victims based on their political affiliations. The fight against the COVID-19 pandemic requires a bipartisan response, and my fellow Senate Republicans and I have supported Gov. Jay Inslee and his executive-branch agencies as they work to minimize the disease’s impact on Washingtonians.
We have backed most of the governor’s proclamations related to the state’s response to this outbreak. We have been in close contact with him and his staff during this uncertain period, sharing important information and collaborating when possible. But when it comes to his stay-home order that closes businesses he has deemed “nonessential,” we think he has been inconsistent and gone too far.
We realize the intent behind his order is to keep people safe from COVID-19 and eventually stop the spread of this serious disease. However, he has closed down several sectors of our state economy that could remain open without putting the workers involved at risk.
We’re not asking the governor to prematurely and recklessly reopen every sector of Washington’s economy before the outbreak is contained. The public’s health and safety is the highest priority during this crisis. But we care about Washington’s economic health as well as its public health. That is why we want the governor to ease restrictions on those industries in which employees don’t work in proximity and thus are at little risk of contracting COVID-19.
The residential-housing industry is a good example. Gov. Inslee ordered that commercial and residential housing construction be stopped while allowing government-related construction, such as low-income housing, to continue. That seems completely inconsistent. Single-family homes also are an important part of Washington’s economy and the effort to address our state’s housing crisis — a housing shortage brought up countless times during our recent legislative session. How is building low-income housing safer than building “regular” housing across the same street? If construction workers on public projects can find a way to work and maintain physical distancing, workers on private projects can do the same. Builders are intensely committed to ensure the safety of their employees.
Washington is one of only five states not allowing home construction to continue during the pandemic. Oregon and California allow home-construction projects to proceed. Gov. Inslee should do the same. How is building a home in Vancouver less safe than building the very same home in Portland? Our governor repeatedly has said we will make decisions based on data. We have not seen any data to justify being an outlier from most of the rest of the country.
Gov. Inslee also should be more consistent about highway construction work. Workers who replace a culvert are in closer proximity than workers laying down asphalt, yet the governor will allow one but not the other?
After his initial order to shut down businesses he didn’t consider essential, the governor listened and agreed funerals could be held under certain circumstances. He allowed real estate agents to resume working, with some restrictions, and he recently did likewise with automobile repair shops, auto sales and leasing facilities, and renewable energies. He should do the same with residential homebuilding and road-construction work, as well as other industries in which employees can maintain enough distance from each other and customers.
The governor declared a few years ago that a “healthier Washington is a more prosperous Washington.” That’s not always true, as the economic fallout from his employer-related proclamations clearly shows. Senate Republicans believe it’s possible to protect public health without continuing to block business activity that the governor apparently considers dispensable but is viewed as “essential” by countless families across Washington. Not every employer can get by on telework or takeout orders. We believe “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” can evolve to “Stay Separate, Stay Safe.”
Mark Schoesler is Senate minority leader and represents the 9th Legislative District.