Democrats threaten Inslee with special session over state's reopening plan

A group of state lawmakers, led by a Pierce County Democrat, sent a scathing letter to Gov. Jay Inslee Thursday threatening to call a special legislative session if he doesn't reconsider the state's reopening plan. 

The letter comes two days after the governor announced all counties in Washington will remain in their current reopening phases, leaving Pierce County in Phase 2 while surrounding counties stay in Phase 3 despite failing metrics that would have sent them backward.

The letter, first obtained by Q13 News, was signed by eight Democratic lawmakers and four of their Republican colleagues. In the letter, the group tells the governor that his decision to leave Pierce County behind "damages both our confidence and our communities."

The letter says granting a pause for some counties while not offering the same consideration to others "runs counter to our understanding that science and fairness shape decisions."

RELATED: Frustration in Pierce County over Phase 2 COVID restrictions remaining in place

Despite agreeing with the sentiment, some Republicans expressed their frustration with the letter and declined to sign on.

House Minority Leader J.T. Wilcox, R-Yelm, said in a statement that he wishes Democrats had worked with his party to put checks and balances on the governor’s emergency powers during the regular session.

"I appreciate that there may be a letter circulating among the Pierce County delegation to send to the governor, and I hope it is successful," he wrote Wednesday evening. "I also hope the lesson we all take from this is there should always be legislative oversight on emergency powers."

Gov. Inslee issued the following statement in response to the letter: 

"We stand by our decisions designed to save the lives of the residents of Pierce County. I can categorically say Pierce County has not been treated unfairly during this pandemic. We have strived to save lives in Pierce County and have done so in a way that has been fair, based on the extraordinarily high level of virus activity in Pierce County; the extraordinarily high rate of increase in infections; and our continued concern about the virus’ growth.

"I believe this decision was fair for three reasons:

"First, Pierce County unfortunately has an extremely high rate of infection and hospitalizations at this time, one of the highest in the state and higher than any of its neighboring counties. There are 374 infections per 100,000 residents, which is 50% higher than King County.

"Second, there have been stark differences between the acceleration of the infection rate experienced in Pierce County and the plateauing of infections statewide. Any rational assessment of appropriate response to this pandemic has to take into consideration the intensity of the infection rate in the relevant counties and this we have done. Hospitalizations in Pierce County rose rapidly in the last two weeks of April as well. It would be entirely irrational to ignore the conditions in Pierce County.

"Third, even if Pierce County had enjoyed a pause before it moved to Phase 2, these numbers would not have improved. Pierce County is in Phase 2 because of the incredibly rapid rise of the infection rate there in recent weeks, not because Healthy Washington wasn’t paused earlier.

"We understand frustrations that have arisen during this pandemic. But they arise because of the rising numbers of the virus, not because of any disparate treatment between counties by my administration. Let us all focus our energies on increasing vaccinations across our state, including Pierce County, which is the ultimate way to free ourselves both from the devastation of this pandemic and from the economic restrictions that are so troublesome.

"If legislators from Pierce County have any ideas about how to accelerate that effort, I look forward to working with them."

Business owners and local leaders have expressed frustration in recent days as restaurants, gyms and retail stay at 25 percent capacity in Pierce County and 50 percent capacity in neighboring King and Snohomish counties. 

Public health officials in King and Snohomish warned that they would likely revert to Phase 2 this week because of rising case numbers and hospitalizations, but Inslee said data from the weekend showed cases were plateauing. 

Although hospitalizations have increased, "hospital stays are shorter and we are confident staff are handling the increase," the governor said.

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