PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The push for social distancing could mean criminal charges for those who don’t follow the rules. Washington Governor Jay Inslee and Attorney General Bob Ferguson held a briefing Monday during which they discussed possible recourse for repeat offenders.
Inslee was somber when he took the podium and opened his address with remarks acknowledging that this week marks the one month anniversary since the first COVID-19 fatality in the state. As of Sunday, 195 people have died from the virus, and the state has tracked more than 5,000 confirmed cases.
The primary focus of his address was to outline a new tiered system of law enforcement response to those who are not in compliance with the governor’s “Stay Home” orders.
“Our focus remains on educating the public while these orders remain in effect, and we don’t know how long that’s going to be,” said Inslee. “And now, working with state regulatory agencies, prosecutors and law enforcement, we are providing clear guidance on how to report violations of this order of compliance so that everyone can help everyone be on this team.”
The first tier consists of local and state authorities responding to complaints made by citizens. Their first priority will be education, to let the offender know they are violating the governor’s orders and how they can comply.
If that warning is not heeded, a second tier involves action from the state, starting with a citation. For businesses, this could also be suspension notices for a variety of permits.
“Including revoking business licenses if that’s what’s necessary to bring these folks into compliance,” said Inslee.
For the third tier, if the first two measures still do not curb the behavior, state authorities are able to refer the complaint to the state attorney general for civil or criminal charges. Violating the orders in place can lead to a misdemeanor charge.
“But, taking people to court is the very last thing that will be considered and should not be necessary under any conditions for folks who really value the health of their loved ones and respect for everyone in our community,” said Inslee.
Watch Gov. Inslee’s remarks:
If you believe that a business is in violation of the order, state officials have created an online form where people can submit complaints for investigation. Inslee stressed that people should not call 911 if they see people gathering in public—they should instead call their local authority’s non-emergency line.
“I would like to stress this: these are local decisions. We’re not going to tell local law enforcement how to do their jobs,” said Inslee after outlining the three-tiered model. “We think the best way to help is to provide information, and let the local law enforcement agencies make their decisions.”
Ferguson echoed Inslee’s message when he took the podium.
“Look, we’re all in this together. Our goal is 100% voluntary compliance,” said Ferguson. “We want to be very clear, I don’t want to have to use the powers of my office to hold accountable those who intentionally violate the governor’s emergency orders. But I want to be very clear: if necessary, I will. The reason is simple: lives literally depend upon it.”
Inslee and Ferguson were joined by Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, Bellevue Police Chief Steve Mylett and Spokane Police Chief Craig Meidl for the afternoon press briefing.
In the meantime, some cities are setting up their own online systems to report violators. In Bellevue, city spokesperson Meegan Black said residents can download the “My Bellevue” app and drop a pin to report where inappropriate gatherings are happening. Mylett said officers are not currently making arrests, but will patrol those spots where the activity is reported.
“As the officers become available in between high-priority calls, we will go over there,” said Mylett. “Again, our role is to inform and educate.”
Black said Bellevue has received 207 reports of gatherings since the app launched four days ago.
An analysis from researchers at the University of Washington predicts approximately 81,000 people in the United States will die from coronavirus over the next four months. Hospitals and other care facilities across the country could be overwhelmed with patients as soon as the second week of April.
In Washington, the outlook is concerning. Roughly 1,429 Washingtonians will die from COVID-19 by early August, according to the prediction. The deaths are projected to peak at 27 per-day on April 16. Resource use is expected to peak on April 19, and Washington is projected to come up short by nearly 100 ICU beds.
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