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L&I spokesman: ‘Frustrating’ to see WA businesses risk employee health by defying COVID rules

Stay Home Art in Seattle's Capitol Hill. (Photo Credit: Casey Rogers/SDOT Flickr)

After Governor Inslee extended the ban on indoor dining at restaurants statewide, some business owners decided they were going to defy the COVID rules. One of those restaurants is Spiffy’s near Chehalis, which now faces nearly $150,000 in fines, and has been hit with a temporary restraining order.

Gov. Inslee: Penalties will be ‘significant’ for restaurants flouting COVID rules

The owner of Spiffy’s became, in some circles, a hero of sorts by saying he would continue to allow customers to eat in his restaurant. There have been reports of big crowds at the restaurant, and some armed individuals who tried to run out state employees there to enforce restrictions. Tim Church, spokesman for the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries (L&I), told KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show that Spiffy’s is not the only restaurant in Washington defying orders, but it is one that has received a lot of attention.

“There’s maybe around a dozen or so restaurants out there and other businesses that are refusing to follow the requirements,” Church said. “In the case of Spiffy’s, we’ve used all of the tools we have. We’ve cited and fined them, we’ve issued what’s called an order and notice of immediate restraint, and we’ve gone to the local Superior Court, and that court has issued a court order requiring them to follow state requirements. Unfortunately, they still are not, at this point.”

Some L&I enforcement officers have received death threats, been cussed at, and even chased away from the restaurants when they show up to do their job and enforce the state’s COVID restrictions.

“It’s certainly frustrating,” Church said. “I know people like to see people who work in government as somehow different from them. But I can tell you, we’re really not. I worked in the media for years. I have lots and lots of friends and family and relatives who do many other things. We are your neighbors, and your relatives, and we’re trying to do a job.”

“It’s incredibly frustrating because, I’ll be honest with you, it’s hard to fathom that there are people and businesses out there who still don’t think this is real, so they don’t think they have to follow the rules,” he added. “… This is as real as it gets, and we all need to be working together to prevent this pandemic from spreading, not doing the opposite.”

WA state employees enforcing COVID rules face threats from armed groups

Luckily, Church says the vast majority of business owners in the state are complying, and are doing their best to keep customers and employees safe and healthy.

“I mean, when you think about it, drive down the street, there are hundreds of restaurants and businesses in any community, and most of them are doing the right thing,” he said. “We do get a lot of complaints. I think since the summer we’ve had, you know, tens of thousands of complaints about businesses not complying. But many of them — when we connect with them, we let them know we’ve had complaints about them — many of them step up and follow the requirements and do what’s right for their employees.”

There are a few that choose not to though, he says, which is “unfortunate.”

“It’s not the right thing for the safety and health of their employees,” Church said. “Not only that, these people have to go home at night, right? And many of them are are going to work, getting exposed to people. In many of the restaurants that are not following the requirements to close, they’re also not following the masking requirements, so you have folks coming in without masks, and employees without masks, and it’s not a good situation. It’s not good for the people who work there. It’s not good for their families that they come home to every night.”

Just because L&I employees are the ones responsible for enforcing these rules first, doesn’t mean that they enjoy shutting down restaurants or telling businesses to limit operations. Church says it’s the opposite and that L&I employees care deeply about the health and safety of workers, which is part of the department’s mission.

“We want to make sure when people go to work that they can come home and they’re healthy as they went to work that day,” he said. “So, yeah, it doesn’t feel good when you get a voicemail and you listen to it and someone is calling you all sorts of names, or you open up your email in the morning and you’ve got emails from people telling you what they think of you, and it’s not pleasant.”

For Church, most of those comments come electronically, and he says he has gotten some himself. For those out in the field, it’s all to their face.

“For people who are out in the field, it’s not good, you know, they’re trying to do a job and getting cussed at, and threatened, and all the things that people do when they don’t like what you’re doing,” he said. “And I can tell you, just as a human being, it doesn’t feel good to have people say those kind of things about you personally and to your face when you’re trying to do the job. And that job is important — it’s about trying to prevent this pandemic from spreading, and our folks take it very seriously.”

Returning to the case of Spiffy’s, if the owner continues to remain open, ignore the rules, and refuses to pay fines, Church says criminal charges are certainly a possibility.

“L&I has what’s called civil authority, so we can issue a violation and cite and fine them. We can order them to close, but we do not have the same authority that a superior court does,” he explained. “In Spiffy’s, and actually two other situations, superior courts have ordered businesses to close to, well, to close to indoor dining anyway. And if they ignore that order from the court, they can face contempt of court charges. Courts can levy fines against them, and certainly criminal charges are possible.”

“If they continue, we have the ability to essentially go back to the court who issued the temporary restraining order and ask them to issue a motion for contempt of court,” he added. “And we’re certainly considering that in the cases we’re talking about right now.”

That, however, is not the route L&I would like to take. Thankfully, most businesses do comply and adjust their practices when contacted about a complaint.

“We have a team working at the State Emergency Operations Center. They’re taking in some 300 calls a day on average right now. For a while it was up to 500, but now it’s around 300,” Church said. “I think that’s important to note because sometimes I believe there’s an impression that the public is behind some of these places that are choosing to stay open. But I can tell you, the people in those communities might be afraid to speak out at the location, but they’re calling us in droves, telling us that they’re concerned about these behaviors, and wanting us to take action.”

“Many of those complaints we can manage by calling a business and letting them know there’s been some concerns — some of those complaints are about being open when they shouldn’t be, but some of them are about there’s not signs up like there’s supposed to be, or they’re not requiring the customers to wear masks,” he said.

In most cases, there’s a complaint, the business is called, L&I employees make sure the business is aware of the complaint, and knows what is expected to fix the issues.

“And in almost all cases, they welcome that input and are taking care of them,” Church said. “It really is a small number that have chosen to just turn their back on workplace safety and health and do what they choose.”

Listen to the Gee and Ursula Show weekday mornings from 9 a.m. – 12 p.m. on KIRO Radio, 97.3 FM. Subscribe to the podcast here.

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