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L&I: Only ’40 to 50 businesses’ in Washington fined for defying COVID rules

Spiffy's Restaurant in Chehalis has refused to close despite restrictions on indoor dining. (Courtesy photo)

While the Department of Labor and Industries is getting, on average, 329 complaints a day about businesses defying Governor Inslee’s coronavirus restrictions, only a handful of businesses statewide have actually gotten to the point of incurring fines.

Complaints come in concerning businesses that are open in defiance of the governor’s orders, that are providing prohibited services, or that are not correctly following the precautions. Many of those complaints are concerning the same few dozen businesses.

“I believe the total, since all of this began, is 40 to 50 businesses that we have received complaints on, and that we have moved forward to cite and fine them,” said Tim Church, communications director for L&I.

The vast majority of Washington businesses, he said, are following the orders to the letter.

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“Remember, there are tens of thousands of businesses out there that are complying with the orders to help manage this pandemic,” Church said. “We’re getting a lot of complaints, but really the number of businesses who are not following the rules and doing what they’re supposed to be doing is relatively small. That’s what makes them stand out.”

In some cases, Church said, more than 100 complaints have come in about a single business.

“A lot of people out there are frustrated and concerned when they see places that are open that are not supposed to be. … They’re concerned for their own health, they’re concerned for the health of the people they see out there working, for the customers,” Church said. “And they know the more we follow the rules and regulations to prevent the spread of the disease, the quicker we’re going to deal with this problem.”

He said if there is a case in which a business genuinely misunderstood the rules — for example, if employees were mistakenly wearing their masks wrong — the business gets a chance to fix the problem before being fined. This kind of scenario happened a lot when the phased reopening plan began in June, and different counties had different rules from one another.

“If it’s a situation where there’s confusion over what the requirements are, we’re often connecting businesses and helping make sure they understand clearly what those requirements are,” Church said.

However, under the current restrictions — which have been in place statewide for a month — there is a little less leeway. Church said any restaurants or gyms still providing indoor services are clearly aware of what they’re doing, and therefore do not get a second chance before receiving fines.

“In most cases, with restaurants and places that are open at this point, they know they’re not supposed to be,” Church said. “And in that case, we open an inspection and can cite them and fine them as soon as the inspection is complete.”

He noted that the same businesses getting fined tend to be those that are already loud and proud about their defiance.

“There’s a pretty small group that has gotten a lot of attention, and the ones that get a lot of attention usually drive the complaints that we receive as well,” he said. “In many cases, these are businesses that have gone out there and said, ‘Hey, look, we’re defying these orders.'”

Punishments come not just in the forms of fines. Licenses, such as liquor licenses or cosmetology licenses, can also be suspended, as happened recently to a restaurant in Port Orchard. Other departments get involved at this point as well, such as the Department of Licensing (cosmetology) and the Liquor and Cannabis Board (liquor).

L&I can also issue an Order and Notice of Immediate Restraint, or can work with a county’s superior court to get a restraining order, both of which require a business to close until it obeys the rules.

Church said they have also only gone through this with one restaurant so far, the Fairway Café in Lynden. That restaurant had been seating customers for indoor dining before it was shut down. It has since reopened for just takeout.

The business that holds the record for racking up the highest fines is Graham Fitness at $77,000. That encompasses eight days of staying open against the restrictions.

And deciding to follow the rules after getting a fine does not erase the punishment. Church said the goal is to bring businesses into compliance and have them operating safely — but they still have to account for their past actions when they “put their folks at risk.”

“We don’t want to cite and fine businesses, we really don’t. We want them to do what’s right for the health of their employees and the health of their communities,” Church said. “That is our primary goal. If we have to cite them and fine them and issue orders for them to close, it’s our last choice.”

If you have a business and are unsure of current restrictions, you can contact L&I to get clarification.

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