Record 1,600-plus show up for Legislature hearing to reopen restaurants, gyms and theaters

By Annette Cary

Tri-City Herald

A Washington state Senate hearing on a bill that would reopen restaurants and other businesses during the COVID pandemic may have drawn record attendance.

More than 1,600 people signed into the committee hearing to participate remotely on Wednesday, with more than 400 of them asking to testify.

Of the people who signed in, 93% were in favor of the bill, said Sen. Perry Dozier, R-Waitsburg, who took office Jan. 11.

Dozier is among 16 co-sponsors of the legislation.

Currently all Washington state counties are in Phase 1 of reopening to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus after Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new Healthy Washington — Roadmap to Recovery on Jan. 11. It rolled the state back to a revised Phase 1.

Senate Bill 5114 would automatically move the entire state to Phase 2 and reopen indoor dining, indoor fitness centers use, and movie theaters and other indoor entertainment businesses. All would be restricted to 25% capacity.

In addition, indoor gatherings with up to five nonhousehold members would be allowed.

Only a few dozen of the hundreds who signed up for the hearing were given the chance to speak, with most of them limited to one minute before the sound on their remote comments were muted.

Restaurants take safety precautions that make them a safer environment for socializing with family and friends, several restaurant owners said during the hearing.

Julia Gorton with the Washington Hospitality Association said Washington is one of five states in the nation that does not allow indoor dining.

But Lacy Fehrenbach, the Washington state deputy secretary for COVID-19 response, said the bill to move to Phase 2 of reopening had no health data to support the change.

After taking protective measures, Washington state ranks 44th in the nation for COVID deaths per 100,000 people, even though it had the first known COVID case and 37 of the first 50 deaths in the nation, she said.

Several health care workers in Western Washington said that reopening would stress hospital systems already overburdened from COVID cases and their exhausted front-line workers.

Call for Senate action

Dozier said after the hearing that the large turnout — which a fellow senator said appeared to be a record — shows that economic recovery should be the Legislature’s top priority.

“The people are telling us they need to get back to work,” Dozier said.

“Our COVID economic shutdown has driven unemployment to record levels,” he said. “We have businesses closing for good and idled workers wondering how they will put food on the table.”

He called for the Democratic majority of the Senate committee to permit a vote that would allow the bill to advance to the Senate floor, saying it was clearly something that people across the state want.

Part of the credit for the large turnout goes to Brown, who has been working since 2014 to expand the use of remote-testimony technology by the Senate.

“Now these efforts are paying off,” she said in a news release before the hearing to let her Tri-Cities area constituents know how they could testify from home on the bill.

“You no longer need to go to a library or community college, but with a little preparation, you can testify from your own laptop or smart phone,” she said.