Even as Enumclaw is experiencing more daily COVID-19 cases than ever, city leaders have become increasingly lax in enforcing state-mandated mask rules during council meetings.
When the pandemic struck Washington in early 2020, the world of local politics was turned on its head as many city councils around the state clambered to figure out a way to continue various services and provide access to public meetings when Gov. Jay Inslee first prohibited in-person meetings and suspended various laws relating to the Open Public Meetings Act and the Public Records Act.
Changes came practically overnight, as Enumclaw went from a fully-present council during a March 16, 2020 meeting to a skeleton crew consisting of Mayor Jan Molinaro, city attorney Mike Reynolds, City Clerk Maureen Burwell, and just a couple of other city employees to operate the cameras and livestream on April 13. All other elected officials and city staff joined the meeting virtually.
Little by little, other council members began to appear in the flesh; Mayor Pro Tem Chance La Fleur started joining the council meetings in-person June 2020, and Councilman Anthony Wright started physically occupying his seat February 2021. Other council members sporadically attended meetings in-person during this time, and by March, the council was up to half its body meeting in its chambers.
By the time June rolled around, it appears all council members made the transition to in-person meetings. According to Mayor Molinaro, city staff continue to attend council meetings virtually, though there are essential staff members that need to be physically present.
All the while, though, masks were rarely donned by council members at these meetings, whether the chambers were sparse or crowded (in-person audiences were allowed starting in June). This was, and continues to be, in violation of both King County and Washington state mask mandates, which were instituted May 2020 and June 2020 respectively.
How the mandates were structured and who they affected changed over time, of course; for example, last May, both the county and the state issued new rules allowing people vaccinated against COVID-19 to gather in public without a mask – this means that, for a time, it was possible the Enumclaw council was not in violation of these mandates.
That reprieve only lasted so long, however, as on Aug. 23, the state Secretary of Health once again ordered all Washingtonians to wear masks in public, regardless of vaccination status. This was due in large part to the highly-contagious Delta variant of virus spreading around the state.
This means the full council was out-of-compliance during their Aug. 23 and Sept. 13 meetings.
A handful of council members, as well as Mayor Molinaro, offered their thoughts on the newer mask mandate when asked.
“I do believe there is scientific evidence to support that masks, to some degree, can help in reducing the risk of COVID-19,” Councilman Tom Savageau wrote in an email. “Similarly, I believe that the COVID-19 vaccine can do the same. What I don’t believe in is government mandating circumstances that require masks or vaccines. I think by doing so, you actually cause a reaction whereas people who might have otherwise chosen to wear a mask or get vaccinated now chose to ‘dig their feet in’ and not.”
Savageau added that even though he chooses to not wear a mask, he continues to bring one to council meetings in case someone requests he do so.
“As much as we might agree with or disagree with what our government is doing, that doesn’t take away from the necessity from each of us to be kind to others around them, regardless of whether we agree with the stance they take,” he continued.
Councilman Beau Chevassus said his mind has somewhat changed on masks in general since the beginning of the pandemic, but that he staunchly trusts science and encourages others to protect the vulnerable.
“Initially I was staunchly pro-mask, even procuring and distributing 10,000 masks for local hospitals when there was a mask shortage,” he said. “However as I look in the rearview mirror and note the efficacy and transparency of our state and county, I cannot help but question the alleged life-saving power of a paper mask that protects myself and others from” the coronavirus.
“We have experienced countless other false directives, poorly implemented communication efforts, inconsistency without acknowledgment (i.e. hypocrisy), and troubling draconian mandates that challenge the very Constitution I have sworn to uphold,” Chevassus continued. “Based upon this track record, it is extremely difficult for me to continue to trust further restrictions and encourage others to submit as well.”
Chevassus was the only council member to volunteer that he’s been vaccinated against the virus — though he was one of the rare cases (between two and five people per million people, according to the CDC) that had to be admitted to the emergency department for a bad reaction.
“I know these amazing, breakthrough vaccines have successfully worked to keep thousands out of the hospitals and save many, many lives. But I guess my point is the manipulative, absolutist messaging should give us pause,” he added. “Certainly preventive efforts may work for some people—and that’s okay. Yet if it doesn’t work for others, that is okay too. I believe this teachable mindset makes for good leadership and good science—changing our minds based off of empirical evidence and not shaming others when an absolutist opinion is not trusted.”
Molinaro also commented on the poor communication he’s experienced from the county and state.
“With continued mixed messages (that directly affect family income) and no exit message it is apparent why there is exhaustion and polarization. As a society we need to ‘live in the sunshine, not the shadows,’” he said. “Instead I take the position that one should have an uplifting attitude when interacting with people. Find the grace to be positive and be encouraging, even when you disagree with someone. It is not always easy as this issue continues to be all around us, but with practice you could see negative situations become diffused.”
Whether the council will decide to wear masks or not in the near future, it seems likely that a discussion will be had; Councilman Anthony Wright said he plans to remind the council of the mask mandate during an upcoming council meeting.
“We will likely need to have a discussion about council members choosing whether they will attend meetings in person with masking related to the county and state policies, as well as remind council members they always have the option to attend the meeting via Microsoft Teams,” he wrote. “As far as leading by example goes, I think we can do better in regards to the council meetings… leadership isn’t just the two times you appear on television during the month. Leadership by example is a sum of everything you do all the time. How you conduct yourself online, how you conduct yourself in public, and how you conduct yourself with other entities, private or public.”
No other council members responded to questions from the Courier-Herald.
Mike Faulk, deputy communications director for Inslee, said that penalties for the council not wearing masks in meetings could result in anything from “a warning to fines to potential misdemeanor charges” from the state Department of Labor and Industries.
However, he also stressed that “when there has been a lack of compliance the priority has been encouraging people to come into adherence before taking enforcement action.”
THE STATE OF COVID IN ENUMCLAW
As of Sept. 17, Enumclaw has experienced 1,554 cases of COVID-19, meaning more than 10 percent of the city has been infected, according to King County data.
Numbers were relatively low last June and July, but any gains made against the virus were eradicated in August, when the city saw multiple days that broke last winter’s daily COVID case record. Up until now, the city’s highest daily COVID count was 20, which was recorded on Dec. 12, 2020. That record was eclipsed first on Aug. 9, which saw 25 cases in a single day. That record was again broken Aug. 16, which saw 27 cases.
Hospitalizations were also down during last June, but started ticking up again in July and August; in total, the city has seen 90 hospitalizations.
There has been one new death since the beginning of the summer, recorded on Sept. 3. This brings Enumclaw’s total death county to 32.
The city’s COVID-19 metrics remain higher than King County in general. Overall, the county sees a 4.2 percent of all tests come back positive, while Enumclaw’s rate is at 8.4 percent.
The hospitalization rates and death rates are closer together — Enumclaw’s hospitalization rate is 5.8 percent, while the county’s hovers at 5.4; the city’s death rate is 2.1 percent, while King County’s is down at 1.3.