The governor warns of stepped-up ‘stay home’ enforcement

Meanwhile, Snohomish County has postponed the deadline to pay property taxes until June 1.

OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Monday unveiled a stepped-up effort to enforce his statewide “stay home” order amid signs of a slowing rate of infection in King County and a continued rise in Snohomish County and elsewhere.

Meanwhile, property owners in Snohomish County won’t have to pay their property tax bills until June 1. Originally due by April 30, the extension mirrors ones granted in King and Pierce counties.

At a news conference, Inslee said it’s “been very gratifying to see the vast majority of Washingtonians complying” with his March 23 order to shutter non-essential businesses and keep people home in an unprecedented attempt to blunt the spread of COVID-19

But, he said, compliance isn’t good enough. And, he said, “thousands of calls” have come in from residents concerned about businesses and individuals not abiding restrictions set to expire next week. The governor is expected to extend them.

“These people are concerned about their health, the health of others, and how the actions of those who willfully violate this order may ultimately drag out the COVID-19 crisis even longer,” he said.

Inslee, joined by Attorney General Bob Ferguson and Washington State Patrol Chief John Batiste, said the state will focus on getting businesses to follow the rules. A new online complaint form allows anyone to report a firm they think is violating an aspect of the executive order.

Companies will be contacted and encouraged to follow the rules. If that doesn’t work, a business could have its license suspended or revoked and it could face civil or criminal charges.

The goal is “100 percent voluntary compliance, ” Ferguson said. But he would pursue civil or criminal actions if necessary because “lives depend on it,” he said.

Anyone who thinks an individual is flouting the law can be reported to police. However, don’t use 911 unless it is an absolute emergency.

A violation could be charged as a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to 364 days in a county jail or a $5,000 fine.

Bellevue police Chief Steve Mylett, who took part in Monday’s news conference via phone, said frontline officers are not looking to put people in jail.

“We’re not arresting people. We’re not citing people. We’re not detaining people,” said Mylett, who represented the King County Police Chiefs and Sheriffs Association in the news conference. “Our posture at this time is inform and educate.”

Meanwhile, Monday marked a somber anniversary in this pandemic. A month ago the state reported its first COVID-19 death.

Late Monday the state Department of Health had not yet released new data on the outbreak, but as of Sunday the statewide count of cumulative coronavirus cases was 4,896. Based on new numbers released by counties, the Washington death toll on Monday surpassed 200.

In Snohomish County, the case count was 1,127, with 31 deaths, according to the Snohomish Health District.

There are signs the deadly virus’s grip on Washington is changing.

A new study released Monday shows that public policies limiting person-to-person contact through social distancing appear to be “paying off,” helping slow the spread of infections and the number of deaths — in King County, at least.

The analysis by the Bellevue-based Institute for Disease Modeling compared data on a decline in interactions with reductions in COVID-19 transmission. Researchers concluded that as the number of interactions dropped, so too did the number of new infections.

“What we’re doing now appears to be working,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, health officer of Public Health Seattle and King County.

But he cautioned there is still an epidemic and it’s way too soon to ease restrictions. Such a move would allow the deadly virus to come “roaring back.”

“This is a long-haul situation,” Duchin said during a briefing on the findings. “It would be very much a mistake to read these results as a reason to let up. It will be months before we can go back to our normal activities.”

In its most recent guidance to clinicians issued Friday, the Snohomish Health District painted a less optimistic view of the spread of the virus in coming weeks. According to the notice, data suggest that COVID-19 transmission is increasing in the community and that an increasing proportion of emergency department visits and hospital admissions for fever and respiratory disease over the past several weeks are attributable to the virus.

While long-term-care residents and staff, other health care workers and close cases of confirmed contacts have increased risk of infection, “most cases have no identifiable risk factor other than living in the community.”

“Given that cases counted this week reflect transmission that occurred 1-2 weeks ago, it is still too soon to assess the extent to which recently implemented social distancing measures have reduced transmission,” the notice said.

The county’s four acute-care hospitals continue to experience heavy patient volumes and limited bed availability, according to the notice.

In his news conference, Inslee said that while “we may have some success” bringing the rate of infection down in some areas, there is “disturbing news” in several counties where the percentage of people who test positive are ranging from 15% to 20%.

“It is very alarming to us, frankly,” Inslee said.

The extension on property tax bills in Snohomish County was announced Friday by county Executive Dave Somers and Treasurer Brian Sullivan.

“We know COVID-19 has hit our economy particularly hard,” Somers said. “And we want to provide relief. These are not ordinary times and we want to help out those who are stretched financially during this pandemic.”

This won’t be insignificant for many homeowners because the average bill is estimated at about $4,700, a 10% increase from last year.

Banks, mortgage services and other financial companies that pay customers’ property taxes must still meet the April 30 deadline.

Residents with questions about tax bills can visit the county treasurer web page at snohomishcountywa.gov/5214/Treasurer.

Herald writers Joey Thompson and Phillip O’Connor contributed.

Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; jcornfield@herald net.com. Twitter: @dospueblos.

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