Lawsuit to revoke Inslee’s COVID-19 orders gets a remote hearing

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Lawsuit to revoke Inslee’s COVID-19 orders gets a remote hearing

WENATCHEE — After hours of argument via Zoom meeting Thursday, a Chelan County judge must now determine whether a lawsuit to end the COVID-19 state of emergency can go forward, and whether it will be heard in Chelan County at all.

Local plaintiffs, including four Wenatchee City Council members, want Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamations ended, so local businesses and gathering places that were closed over viral spread concerns can reopen during the pandemic. Superior Court Judge Kristin Ferrera, who was diagnosed last week with COVID-19, heard the case from her home via Zoom.

“There is irreparable harm to anyone from impositions on constitutional liberties,” said Bainbridge Island attorney Joel Ard, representing nine plaintiffs including Wenatchee councilmembers Jose Luis Cuevas, Ruth Esparza, Travis Hornby and Linda Herald. “Every day that you can’t assemble or can’t worship or can’t freely move about is a harm, and time can’t be recovered and run backward. … And every bit of delay increases that harm.”

Almost 21,000 Washingtonians have been diagnosed with the novel coronavirus, which affects the respiratory system and spreads easily. More than 1,100 people in the state have died, and more than 100,000 nationwide.

Inslee signed his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” executive order March 23, limiting the sizes of public gatherings, closing in-person church services, and shuttering many businesses deemed non-essential to daily life under the coronavirus pandemic, including bars and restaurants.

Some of those restrictions have been moderated by subsequent guidance from the state, including a reopening of worship services under certain conditions. Twenty-six of Washington’s 39 counties have been approved for Phase 2 of four phases of reopening, in which some services come back online so long as a decline can be shown in new novel coronavirus infections.

But Chelan and Douglas counties haven’t yet qualified for Phase 2, and local city officials and county commissioners have fought to reopen. Both counties passed special ordinances in April to begin home construction, for instance, but withdrew them under state pressure.

Ard is leading four similar lawsuits in four counties to revoke Inslee’s order, saying the threatened crisis in Washington’s hospital system has passed. In one of the lawsuits, Douglas County Commissioners Dan Sutton and Marc Straub are plaintiffs. Both men sit on the eight-member Chelan-Douglas Board of Health, which passed a resolution Tuesday outlining how it would manage the pandemic if Inslee’s orders are overturned or lifted.

“We know that there in fact is a novel infectious disease in this community, as there is everywhere in the state and around the world,” Ard told Ferrera in Thursday’s hearing. “But the (Chelan-Douglas Board of Health) says, we have the legal right, the legal obligation, and the absolute ability to address this, and if and when we address it, we will do it in a manner that imposes fewer restrictions on these plaintiffs.”

The state says the lawsuit, one of four filed in various counties, is without merit — and in any case, it should be heard in Thurston County, where the governor signed the proclamation.

“This is a case in which the governor has relied on science, data, and epidemiology,” said Deputy Solicitor General Jeffrey Even, “and has exercised the discretion granted to him by law in a way that these plaintiffs — for perfectly understandable reasons — are uncomfortable with, or don’t like.”

Chelan and Douglas counties have seen 409 positive tests for COVID-19 since the pandemic began, according to its own data, including nine deaths. Even noted that Chelan County saw 77 new cases in the last two weeks, putting it behind only Yakima County, a major hotspot, in the rate of new infections.

Supporters of the lawsuit rallied outside the Chelan County Courthouse during the hearing, many sporting campaign regalia for President Donald Trump and Washington gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. Ferrera, who livestreamed the hearing on her own Facebook page as well as via Zoom, said she would issue a decision at a 2 p.m. hearing Monday.

“These issues impact people deeply in their health, in their livelihoods, and their home and their community,” she said. “… I think that there’s some concern, just from some of the things that I’ve read in the pleadings, that there’s some political issues here. And the court does not interject in political issues. The court is going to decide the case on the law.”