Days before taking office, Sheriff-elect Adam Fortney call in a driver’s license during a traffic stop in Everett on Dec. 31, 2019. (Kevin Clark / Herald file photo)

Days before taking office, Sheriff-elect Adam Fortney call in a driver’s license during a traffic stop in Everett on Dec. 31, 2019. (Kevin Clark / Herald file photo)

Editorial: Public health isn’t part of Sheriff Fortney’s beat

The sheriff, critical of state stay-home orders, said on Facebook he will not carry out those orders.

By The Herald Editorial Board

We would like to advise Snohomish County Sheriff Adam Fortney to stick to the duties of law enforcement for which he was elected in November, but — based on a post he made to his political campaign’s Facebook page Tuesday night — he’s already excused himself from those responsibilities when it comes to enforcing the state’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” orders in the county.

Fortney, a 23-year veteran of the sheriff’s office prior to his election, posted a 1,100-word essay criticizing Gov. Jay Inslee’s plans — also announced Tuesday — for a gradual rollback of the stay-home restrictions that Inslee issued one month ago in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Fortney further added that he has not and will not carry out “any enforcement for the current stay-at-home order.”

While he has abstained from carrying out those duties, Fortney has added to his job description, offering his expertise regarding constitutional law, statistical modeling and public health, areas for which he has not volunteered proof of previous experience.

In the post, the sheriff does acknowledge the seriousness of the COVID-19 outbreak and sorrow for the nearly 100 lives lost thus far in Snohomish County.

“This is a very serious issue and the appropriate precautions need to be taken to protect our most vulnerable populations,” Fortney writes.

Fortney continues, however, that he is “worried about the economy and I am worried about Washingtonian’s (sic) that need to make a living for their family.”

Fortney also questions the determinations by the governor’s office regarding which businesses and jobs were deemed “essential” and thus able to remain open, asking what makes cannabis shops “essential” and gun shops not; why construction at public projects is, but of residential homes isn’t.

The sheriff voices valid concerns for the local economy, families’ financial well-being and calls for clarification by the governor’s office regarding how it came to its decisions on essential workers and businesses. He should have stopped there.

Elsewhere in the post Fortney claims:

“I think it is clear that the ‘models’ have not been entirely accurate.”

“If this coronavirus is so lethal and we have shut down our roaring economy to save lives, then it should be all or nothing.”

“I believe that preventing business owners to operate their businesses and provide for their families intrudes on our right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

And, disturbingly certain of his public health acumen:

“The impacts of COVID-19 no longer warrant the suspension of our constitutional rights,” including the rights to “peaceably assemble,” “keep and bear arms” and “attend church service.”

Fortney misunderstands how statistical models — such as those of the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation — are assembled and how they are used by public health experts in evaluating the potential severity of pandemics and determining the resources and measures that will be necessary to limit them. They’re not meant to make “accurate” death toll predictions but to judge the effectiveness of control measures, which is why the models are adjusted continuously to reflect the latest data. And it’s why — because stay-at-home and social distancing practices have worked to limit the spread of the virus — the models have in recent weeks reflected a gradual easing in death-toll projections for Washington state and for the nation.

Have the orders been intrusive?

Of course. Everyone is intimately familiar with the stay-home orders’ disruptive effects on their daily lives. How could we not be?

Just as obviously, the social-distancing mandates can’t be “all or nothing,” as Fortney suggests. From the start, the reminders to stay six feet apart, to wear masks when in public, limit contact with others and to stay home have sought to strike a balance that protects public health while allowing people enough freedom of movement to live as comfortably as possible for the duration of the crisis.

And Inslee and other governors have not claimed authority over the U.S. Constitution that isn’t already enumerated among the rights belonging to individual states. In the interests of public safety and health, governments are allowed the ability to adopt certain restrictions regarding our rights.

Were they not, Sheriff Fortney might find his deputies challenged by citizens seeking to “peacefully assemble” behind the yellow tape of crime scenes.

Fortunately, a significant majority of Washington residents and other Americans understand all of this. We have seen no reports that Fortney and his deputies — perhaps aside from reminders regarding social distancing — have had to “enforce” the governor’s orders. Nearly all in the county and the state are following them out of a commonsense desires to protect themselves and their loved ones.

The demonstration Sunday at the state Capitol building — being the unmasked exception — numbered some 2,000 people. But that number is far less striking in comparison to the 7.8 million residents who were at home or otherwise going about their admittedly sheltered lives on Sunday.

This has been hard. Twenty-two million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits. More than 4 in 10 have either lost their jobs or lost wages because of the pandemic and the restrictions. Yet, even in the face of economic hardship, a host of polls reflects a determination to stay the course.

Among national polls, significant majorities of Americans said they were supportive of stay-home and related offers, including Huffington Post/YouGov, Quinnipiac and Fox News, which indicated support of at least 80 percent. Asked if they were more worried about restrictions being lifted too quickly, rather than not quickly enough; 66 percent told the Pew Research Center they were worried about an early end to restrictions; 71 percent said the same to Yahoo News/YouGov pollsters.

There isn’t anyone who doesn’t want to see this viral pandemic wither and die and take with it its social-distancing necessities. We could go for a good firm handshake about now. And a hug from a grandchild.

The restrictions will be lifted in time. As Inslee outlined Tuesday, restrictions regarding elective surgeries, construction and outdoor recreation are expected to be lifted soon. And more will follow, especially as the state and the nation take steps to increase testing, using the results to trace the contacts of those infected and taking further steps to limit the spread of the disease.

Until then, most of us know what the interests of the public good require. All public officials should be expected to encourage that.

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