A week after a federal court judge denied a temporary restraining order that would have allowed Slidewaters to open in defiance of the state’s lingering COVID-19 shutdown order, owners of the iconic water park were informed on Thursday the local health district had approved their voluntary remediation plan and would allow it to open at half-capacity.
A day later, however, the state of Washington reinserted itself into the matter.
“The Washington State Department of Labor & Industries informed the Chelan-Douglas Health District it didn’t have the authority to supersede the governor’s stay-at-home order,” said Sydney Phillips, litigation counsel for the Freedom Foundation, which is providing the park’s owners with legal representation.
L&I’s response included a threat to fine Slidewaters up to $10,000 if it defies the stay-home order and re-opens. If it opens for a second day or more, the park’s owners will be classified as a “repeat offender,” with the penalties becoming much more severe.
“The stakes have definitely been raised,” Phillips said. “Clearly the state took notice of the health district’s action and the governor ordered L&I to intervene.
“What we have here is a situation where local officials who are trained in this sort of science are satisfied Slidewaters is safe enough to re-open,” she said. “But the governor resents any challenge to his authority and made a political decision that the fate of a business that attracts tens of thousands of visitors and employs 150 local residents doesn’t matter.”
Because it is only open during the summer months, Slidewaters needs to generate as much revenue as possible while it can in order to ensure it will still be in business a year from now.
But Slidewaters’ 2020 revenues — and, by extension, its whole future — have been hanging in limbo since this spring when Inslee in late March classified it and thousands of other businesses statewide as “nonessential,” meaning they could be closed down indefinitely.
Last week, on behalf of the park’s owners, the Freedom Foundation sought a temporary restraining order that would allow the park to open on time and salvage its summer.
A day later the motion was denied.
“We argued that the governor’s so-called ‘emergency’ powers only apply to things like natural disasters,” Phillips said. “And that even if he did have the authority to pick and choose which businesses deserved to live and die, the crisis has long since passed and the restrictions should have been lifted.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control earlier this spring acknowledged there was no evidence the COVID virus could be spread through pools or hot tubs.
Moreover, Slidewaters voluntarily stepped up its remediation efforts by adopting a comprehensive plan calling for social distancing in ride queues and elsewhere around the park, more frequent cleanings and procedures to screen each incoming guest.
On the basis of these steps, the Chelan-Douglas Health District agreed the park could be opened at half capacity immediately.
Until Inslee and L&I decided otherwise.
“It’s a disgrace,” Phillips said. “This has nothing to do with science and everything to do with Jay Inslee refusing to relinquish the dictatorial powers he thinks the COVID emergency entitled him to.”
At the end of the day, she believes, the answer is personal responsibility rather than government intervention.
“There’s nothing wrong with the government assessing how dangerous a situation is,” Phillips said. “But ultimately, free people should have the right to determine for themselves whether an activity is or isn’t safe. The odds of a mountain climber being injured in a fall are much higher than the odds of one of our guests getting sick in a pool, but we don’t presume to ban mountain climbing. We allow adults to assess the risks and decide for themselves.”
The Freedom Foundation is still seeking an injunction challenging the governor’s use of L&I as the enforcement arm for his COVID shutdown.
“And this just shows why it’s necessary,” Phillips said.