COVID compliance complaints roll in

Over 530 anonymous reports involve Camas-Washougal establishments; Camas coffee shop reported 81 times in 10 months

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Signs posted outside a downtown Camas business on Northeast Third Avenue in November 2020 advertise required COVID-19 mitigation protocols. (Kelly Moyer/Post-Record files)

“I observed an employee … having a conversation, inside the cafe, with a customer. Neither were wearing a face mask. They were approximately three feet (from) each other. The employee was handing the customer food. This conversation went on for about five minutes.”

“… There were people seated inside without masks, multiple groups of customers in line without masks less than six feet apart, and the shop’s staff were also not wearing masks.”

“Large church gathering … no one is wearing masks, and also running at more than 25 (percent) capacity.”

“(Business) is putting the community at risk by not requiring masks be worn by anyone in their store. They have covered the windows in an attempt to hide the fact that they are not following state mandates.”

These are just a few of the nearly 540 complaints lodged against Camas-Washougal establishments — all alleging COVID-19 recovery plan violations — sent to the state’s anonymous reporting system between March 27, 2020 and Jan. 22, 2021.

According to public records obtained by the Post-Record, individuals on the lookout for COVID-19 reopening plan violations have singled out Camas-Washougal businesses, churches and other organizations more often than any other non-Vancouver area in Clark County. Of the nearly 1,250 complaints related to Clark County establishments outside Vancouver, 42 percent (538 complaints) alleged a recovery plan violation in Camas or Washougal.

The vast majority of the complaints call out businesses for allegedly failing to heed state mandates such as mandatory mask-wearing and bans on indoor dining — mandates put in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

A handful of Camas-Washougal businesses repeatedly show up on the list of reopening plan violations. Of the 185 complaints against Camas-Washougal establishments sent to the state’s reporting system between Nov. 1, 2020 and Jan. 22, 2021, one-fourth are tied to Hidden River Roasters in downtown Camas. According to public records obtained through the Washington Military Department, the coffee shop has received 49 complaints since Nov. 1, 2020, and at least 81 complaints since the start of the pandemic. Most of these complaints allege the business is not only allowing indoor dining during a ban on inside restaurant dining, but also letting employees and customers forego state-required face coverings.

“This coffee shop is allowing indoor seating,” stated one complaint filed Jan. 7. “Its employees are not wearing masks, nor do they require others to wear them. They even are pulling the shades over the windows so they can’t be seen violating (state mandates).”

Another complaint, sent to the state on Jan. 4, stated: “Hidden River Roasters is notorious in our city (for) blatantly ignoring the restrictions that we are all trying to follow. They are not requiring any face coverings, they have actively promoted in-person, inside dining for the entire time it hasn’t been allowed with the recent restrictions. If you look at Yelp reviews, there are many people who have seen or experienced the same. This is a small place that I’ve seen jammed with people. Now they have blackout shades so you cannot see in unless you go in. I’m disappointed they are actively accelerating the spread of COVID in my community.”

Hidden River Roasters did not immediately return the Post-Record’s request for comment.

Public records show the state’s Labor & Industries (L&I) agency has investigated the claims against Hidden River and several other local businesses with complaints alleging recovery plan violations. The records also show L&I has sent cease-and-desist letters to at least four Camas-Washougal businesses and has started the cease-and-desist process for three others.

Scott Malfait, the owner of Hiway Fuel Point S, a Washougal automotive business that has received seven complaints — mostly regarding employees allegedly not wearing face coverings — since Nov. 1, 2020, said L&I sent his company a cease-and-desist letter in December 2020. Since then, Malfait, whose father founded Hiway Fuel in 1952, said he has worked hard to bring his business into compliance with the state’s COVID-19 mandates.

“We’ve had meetings and talked it over,” Malfait told the Post-Record this week. “We’re working very hard on it.”

Malfait said it has been difficult to convince his 20 employees to wear masks, despite the state mandates requiring their use and research showing face coverings are one of the best tools for preventing the spread of the airborne COVID-19 coronavirus that has led to the deaths of 186 Clark County residents.

“It’s very hard to work in them,” Malfait said of the mandatory face coverings. “We do it, though. And we were trying to wear them (before the cease-and-desist letter arrived). It’s just sometimes very hard to enforce.”

Other business owners that have received cease-and-desist orders do not seem as open as Malfait to changing their behavior.

Limitless America, a gun shop in Washougal that has been the center of several controversies — including an incident in the summer of 2020 in which families and children participating in a nearby Black Lives Matter march felt threatened by the dozens of heavily armed people surrounding and standing on top of the gun store — also received a cease-and-desist letter from L&I in late December 2020, according to public records.

The gun shop has been the target of at least 21 COVID-19 related complaints since April 2020, including 12 complaints lodged between Nov. 1, 2020 and Jan. 22, 2021.

“This business is not requiring its employees to wear masks, and is not limiting how many customers can be in this small space,” one complaint about Limitless America, sent to the state on Jan. 3, stated. “There were like 30 unmasked individuals crammed into this store. It was absolutely crazy. Contact tracing needs to be done for this location.”

“This business has a sign on the door declaring some sort of omission from requiring masks,” another complaint made in mid-December 2020 stated. “Hard to argue with a bunch of guys packing pistols. No one in the business was wearing a mask, customer or employee, except for myself.”

According to the complainants, the business did not change its ways after L&I sent a cease-and-desist letter.

“I visited this establishment today for the first time,” one complainant stated in early January. “I entered to find the small space packed full of 15 (to) 20 people, only two of whom were wearing masks. Two members of the staff identified themselves as such, (and) neither were wearing masks. This business is violating the mask and social distancing mandates in the most flagrant manner possible.”

In response to the Post-Record’s request for comment, Limitless America owner Eric Hargraves sent the King James Bible’s version of Psalm 91.

‘He’s putting this whole town in danger … and no one is doing anything about it’

Public records show some complainants fear the state’s agencies charged with helping enforce the governor’s COVID-19 prevention measures are not acting on violation reports soon enough.

“He has been reported before,” a complainant claiming the owner of Postal Plus in Camas refuses to wear a face covering, stated on Dec. 26, 2020. “He’s putting this whole town in danger and doesn’t even care. Technically, he’s in violation of every law put in place to keep people safe and no one is doing anything about it.”

Postal Plus has been the target of more than a dozen complaints since the start of the pandemic, including seven complaints filed within the past three months.

Public records show L&I investigators have researched the Postal Plus complaints, but there is no record of a cease-and-desist letter being sent to the Camas business.

The most recent complaint about Postal Plus came in mid-January: “The only man inside was not wearing a mask nor a face shield nor any kind of covering. When asked he responded with ‘some people medically can not wear a mask’ and then gave me an ultimatum about continuing the service I was in need of. There was no sanitizing of his hands nor glove wearing,” the complainant stated. “There were signs posted on the windows by the front entrance about mask regulations but seemed to have no compliance about (COVID-19) regulations. A customer was (waiting) outside for his turn to go inside and he was not wearing a mask either.”

The Camas business has expressed an unwillingness to follow Gov. Jay Inslee’s COVID-19 mandates in the past. In September 2020, Postal Plus posted a call for Camas to “become a sanctuary city against Gov. Inslee’s COVID-19 phased mandate” on the business’ Facebook site.

The business’ website, however, paints a different picture, stating “the health and safety of our customers and staff are of paramount importance” to the company and that Postal Plus “strongly encourages (staff) to practice social distancing and limit the number of customers in the store; follow appropriate hygiene protocols; and perform increased disinfecting/sanitizing within the store, especially for frequently touched surfaces.”

Contacted by the Post-Record, the owner of Postal Plus said he would take the newspaper’s requests for comment “under advisement.” He did not respond in time for this newspaper’s print deadline.

‘We want them to do the right thing’

Although some of the complaints that flow into the recovery-plan violations reporting system are under the purview of the state’s Department of Health or Liquor and Cannabis Board, most of the complaints related to local businesses have gone to L&I investigators.

“These come in through the state’s emergency operations center and are triaged there, then distributed to the agency that has regulatory authority,” Tim Church, L&I’s public affairs manager, explained.

Once a complaint reaches L&I, staff try to connect with the business owner, Church said.

“This could be a phone call to say, ‘Hello. We’ve had numerous complaints that you may not be following the governor’s orders,'” Church said. “Sometimes, it involves a spot check. If we have some belief that they are operating outside the governor’s orders, we will send a cease-and-desist letter.”

Businesses that fail to remedy the situation following the cease-and-desist letter are subject to a heightened investigation involving L&I’s Department of Occupational Safety and Health, Church said.

This “second half of the process,” as Church called it, can lead to fines and other penalties.

“These are legal processes, so they can’t be done hurriedly,” Church noted. “Also, we’re talking about tens of thousands of complaints (coming under L&I’s authority over the past 10 months), so we need to prioritize these complaints, and that’s being done on a regular basis.”

L&I’s primary goal, Church said, is to help a business owner “do the right thing” and follow the state mandates meant to slow the spread of COVID-19 in the community.

“We can cite and fine a business, but that’s not why we’re doing this. We’re doing this to get them to do the right thing,” Church said. “If we can’t get that behavior to happen, that’s when it goes to the citation and penalty (phase).”

To reach that level, however, L&I must have solid proof a business is not following the governor’s orders, Church said.

“We have to have proof that something is being violated,” he said. “We have to go to that location and confirm the business is violating these orders. We’ve done spot checks, but, again, we’re talking about thousands of businesses.”

Church, the L&I spokesperson, said he understands and appreciates the concerns people have regarding the speed at which COVID-19 violation complaints are being handled.

“Frankly, it is hard to imagine in the situation we are now in, with thousands who have been sick and passed away from this horrible virus, that anybody would not be stepping up and doing their part to prevent it,” Church said. “It’s frustrating that some continue to operate outside what is needed.”

Church said L&I does prioritize complaints from employees alleging workplace safety violations.

“If we get a call from someone who says, ‘Hey, I’m an employee and my boss is telling us to not wear masks,’ that would jump to the front of the line,” Church said.

Complainants claiming to be employees working at Camas’ largest private employer, Fisher Investments, have filed several complaints through the state’s reporting system since the beginning of the pandemic. The financial investment firm has had a total of 21 complaints lodged against it since April 2020, including four complaints filed since Nov. 1, 2020.

“Employees are not being screened at start of shift and a few have been sent home during their shift with symptoms and later test positive,” the most recent complaint against Fisher Investments, sent to the state in mid-January, stated. “There are no signs posted about face mask requirements and face masks are only worn by people when they are not at their desk. Employees are also being required to work in the office despite having (remote-office) capabilities.”

In mid-November 2020, a Fisher Investments employee sent a complaint to the state, stating: “Employees have (work-from-home) abilities but are coming into office anyways. We’ve had multiple cases in past few weeks.”

John Dillard, Fisher Investments’ director of global public relations, said the company was not aware of the complaints filed with the state, but that Fisher Investments has “taken an overly cautious approach, meeting or exceeding all government requirements in Washington and across our non-Washington facilities globally, customized to the specific governmental mandates of those jurisdictions.”

Dillard pointed to a lengthy list of precautions the company has taken to ensure employees’ safety during the pandemic, including a mask-wearing policy, providing masks for all employees, practicing social distancing in all offices, verifying that HVAC systems “meet and exceed all standards recommended by the CDC,” regular communication with employees about COVID-19 mitigation policies and allowing non-essential employees to work from home.

“We take the well-being of our employees, families, and community very seriously. Since the pandemic’s onset, we have taken an overly cautious approach to help keep everyone safe, while continuing to serve our 85,000-plus clients who rely on our financial services — including families, foundations, corporations, and small business retirement plans,” Dillard said. “Overall, our employees have been wonderful about cooperating during this difficult time.”

He also said the company has run its COVID-19 mitigation policies by local public health officials.

“In conversations with Clark County Public Health, they were sufficiently impressed with our COVID-19 mitigation program, they soon told us we didn’t need to call them to report specific cases unless we had an official outbreak — which we haven’t,” Dillard said.

Dillard said Wednesday, Feb. 3, that Fisher Investments had looked into the complaints and “confirmed that all of the interactions listed were handled through Clark County Public Health” and reiterated the company has not been contacted by L&I.

All complaints except the most recent have been closed, Dillard added, saying that “reflects the very cautious approach” the company is taking to ensure the safety of its employees.

“We are confident that similar to the others and consistent with Clark County’s previous findings of our COVID-19 mitigation program, (the most recently complaints) too will be closed,” Dillard said.

Some complaints call out churches, government agencies

Private businesses are not the only Camas-Washougal establishments accused of violating COVID-19 reopening mandates.

Public records show at least seven Camas-Washougal churches, four private schools, three public schools or school districts and one local government agency have been the subject of complaints submitted to the state’s COVID-19 violations system since Nov. 1, 2020.

Many complaints against local churches allege congregants are not being required to wear face coverings inside church buildings, per state requirements, and/or that churches are not adhering to the state rule limiting congregations to 25 percent capacity.

The New Horizons Church in Camas was the subject of two complaints in January.

“My wife and I were walking our neighborhood in Washougal … on Sunday morning, Dec. 27th when we passed New Horizons Church on 23rd and Main Street,” one of the complainants stated in their report to the state. “There we saw several groups of people walking to and entering the front doors without masks on. My wife asked if they wore masks indoors and they replied that they didn’t believe in them. We pointed out to them that there is a pandemic going on and that they could be spreading the viru … they didn’t reply and went in. … the two of us have been very careful about doing all we can to avoid contracting COVID, including sacrificing a year of not being able to be with our families and missing our grandchildren horribly … So seeing this dangerous and callous behavior made us both feel so frustrated and angry!”

New Horizons Pastor Frank Smith said the church is trying to follow state mandates.

“We have taken several precautions (against the spread of COVID-19),” Smith told the Post-Record. “We’re not trying to be rebellious. We’ve canceled all of our camps and retreats. There’s no fellowship, no food, no coffee, no hugging, just bumping elbows.”

The church sprays disinfectant on its high-touch surfaces and sanitizes after services and throughout the week, Smith added.

“We are trying to be as compliant as possible,” he said.

The pastor did admit not everyone wears a face covering inside the New Horizons church, despite state rules requiring the wearing of masks for indoor church services.

“We have masks and gloves available for anybody who wants to wear them,” Smith said. “Some do wear them and some don’t. I don’t mandate that you have to wear (a mask) or leave. I don’t think that’s right. … We do have a portion of our congregation that does not wear masks. We’re not a large congregation and we’re in a pretty big building, so people are able to stay away from each other, sing and go home. Some wear masks and some do not.”

Smith said the frequent updates and changes to state mandates are often hard to follow.

“We are trying to be as good of stewards as we possibly can, but there are some things that are out of my control.”

Some complaints sent to the state also targeted public agencies in Camas and Washougal. On Dec. 15, 2020, a complainant alleged the city of Washougal failed to notify employees they may have been exposed to a city employee who had tested positive for COVID-19, “failed to require employees to quarantine when exposed to (COVID-19)” and alleged some city employees “don’t wear masks while indoors and don’t enforce wearing masks for employees.”

Washougal City Manager David Scott said city leaders were not aware of the complaint filed with the state and have not heard from state agencies regarding the allegations.

“The city of Washougal takes the COVID public health requirements around employee and community safety very seriously,” Scott said. “Since the beginning of the public health emergency, we have taken steps to ensure we are complying and are doing what is necessary.”

Scott said the city has implemented several COVID-19 protocols, including closing city buildings to the public; conducting mandatory health screening on anyone entering city facilities; promoting physical distancing; sanitizing high-touch and shared surfaces; allowing remote work whenever possible; and following L&I guidelines on wearing face coverings in the workplace.

Editor’s note: This article was updated at 11:17 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 4, to reflect new information regarding Fisher Investments.