OPINION: Businesses bucking public health mandates endanger community

The email came into the Downtown Camas Association’s inbox at the start of the new year: 

I’m writing because in recent weeks we have found that local Camas businesses have not been following masking protocols. Business owners and staff have had masks hanging around their chins or simply absent. This has happened to us four times in the past two weeks. And, we also witnessed a local business hosting a New Year’s Eve party — lots of people, crowded space, NO MASKS!

We really want to support local businesses, but they seriously need to do a better job of being good pandemic citizens. Is there a way the DCA can help convey this message? These businesses are at risk of losing our business forever.”

Less than one week later, public records of the state’s database of COVID-19 violation complaints filed against Camas-Washougal establishments during the pandemic would prove the anonymous DCA email writer’s concerns were more than justified. 

As outlined in this week’s front-page article, “COVID compliance complaints roll in,” the state’s anonymous reporting system has collected hundreds of COVID-19 safety violation complaints involving Camas-Washougal businesses over the past 10 months. 

Washington’s Labor & Industries agency has sent cease-and-desist letters to a few local businesses caught violating the state’s COVID-19 safety rules, and a few of these business owners, including the owner of Hiway Fuel in Washougal, seem to have taken the warning to heart. 

Others, however, continue to flaunt the rules — covering their windows so the public can no longer see if employees are wearing masks or if customers are gathered close together, maskless, inside the building. 

So far, despite nearly a year’s worth of concerned citizens reporting violation after violation, none of these business owners have truly been held accountable. 

L&I says it is doing the best it can with limited resources and tens of thousands of COVID violation complaints flowing into the state’s reporting system.

We don’t doubt the agency is, like most of us these days, stretched thin, but this lack of — or slowly rolled out — enforcement is putting the entire community at risk. 

As reported in The Globe and Mail this week, researchers now believe the B117 variant (the UK variant) of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus is so contagious, just one second of exposure without face coverings can lead to a COVID-19 infection. That means even just grabbing a coffee through a walk-up window where the employee is unmasked and the customer is unmasked could result in a case of COVID-19. 

Researchers also believe the B117 variant may be deadlier. Even more troubling, the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRP) reported this week that scientists in the UK have found a few B117 variants also have developed a mutation known as E484K, which may be able to partially escape vaccine immunity. 

We know the B117 variant, which is far more contagious than the “original” COVID-19 we’re all used to here in the Pacific Northwest, is already circulating in the Portland metro area, so that means it will likely reach Camas and Washougal, if it’s not here already.

For some reason — likely due to the massive amount of misinformation spread by our former president and right-wing media outlets over the past year — many people still believe COVID-19 is not that big of a deal. For anyone who heard the first announcements about COVID last March — that most people would have very mild symptoms and the virus really only impacted the very elderly or infirm — and then never kept up with the latest scientific research, it might be easy to believe that a few businesses bucking the system by not requiring masks won’t impact the greater community. 

In reality, COVID-19 has killed 187 Clark County residents — including five people in their 30s, five in their 40s, nine in their 50s and 25 in their 60s, as well as at least seven people who had no underlying conditions — and infected more than 17,000 in Clark County.

Scientists continue to learn more about this novel coronavirus every day. We now know COVID-19 can cause adverse health effects long after a person tests negative for the coronavirus, including inflammation of the heart, heart palpitations, acute kidney injury and abnormal lung function, depression, fatigue and anxiety. This week, researchers said 14 percent of those who survived severe COVID-19 have now developed diabetes.  

We also know that young people are not immune from the ravages of this illness.

The CIDRP reported in December 2020 that more young people are dying from COVID-19 than was originally projected: “During the first (five) months of the pandemic, 76,088 all-cause deaths occurred among young adults, with each month showing excess, according to the JAMA research letter. The researchers found 11,899 more Americans ages 25 through 44 have died than expected (18 percent), with 4,535 (38 percent) of the deaths caused by COVID-19,” the report noted. “The remaining deaths, the researchers believe, indicate an insufficient amount of COVID-19 detection and reporting in this age group.”

Camas and Washougal are now sending their elementary — and, soon, middle and high school — back to the classrooms. The more COVID-19 spreads in our community, the greater our chances of having outbreaks in our schools and putting our children, our teachers and our families at risk of not just death but also the myriad long-term complications COVID-19 can cause. 

Businesses that flaunt state rules meant to halt the spread of COVID-19 must be held accountable. If state agencies are too stressed to enforce the governor’s orders, city leaders must step up. 

Aside from literally endangering the public’s health during a global pandemic, business owners who feel they are exempt from following the rules also set up an unfair economic situation for the many business owners in Camas and Washougal who have gone to great lengths — and drained their own financial reserves — to abide by the mandates and keep their staff, customers and community safe from COVID-19 infection. 

Many cities have language already built into their codes allowing for the revocation of a city business license if a business owner is not complying with public health requirements. Some, including Philadelphia, Denver and Santa Clara County, California, have already taken steps to bring COVID-19 rulebreakers into line by revoking city permits and fining businesses. 

Camas and Washougal officials would be wise to investigate what tools they might have to enforce state mandates on a local level and then begin to use those tools as soon as possible.