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Coronavirus (COVID-19) Emergency Declarations and Authority

This page provides information on local emergency powers, statutes, and enforcement in Washington State related to the 2020 novel coronavirus pandemic (COVID-19), including examples of emergency declarations, stay-at-home orders, face mask directives, and other issues.

It is part of MRSC's Coronavirus (COVID-19) Resources for Local Governments series.

Latest Updates

We are no longer posting regular updates to this page. See below for information on local emergency powers; for the most recent State of Washington emergency guidance, see our page COVID-19 Governor's Proclamations and State Guidance.


Overview

On February 29, 2020, Gov. Jay Inslee declared a statewide emergency due to the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19), and the governor has continued to issue further orders limiting public gatherings and closing many businesses.

In addition, many local governments have also declared local emergencies, which allows local officials to bypass procedural requirements related to expenditures and contracting, among other things, as well as potentially accessing state and federal emergency funds if such funds are made available.

Practice Tips:

  • Local governments should carefully track all funds expended to combat COVID-19 in order to support any future reimbursement from state and federal sources.
  • Any purchase, public works project, or service for which a competitive process is waived must be an explicit necessity and directly related to the emergency. (For more information, see our Competitive Bidding Exemptions page.)
  • A memo issued by the Attorney General on March 17 concludes that generally speaking, local governments have broad authority to make expenditures combating COVID-19 without violating the gift of public funds prohibition because such efforts further fundamental public purposes such as protecting public health and welfare. On April 6, the Attorney General's Office issued further guidance concluding that under the present circumstances, local governments may provide cash assistance to low-income individuals and, with sufficient safeguards in place, small business "loans or grants are likely permissible if a local government can establish a clear nexus between such programs and either protecting the local economy or promoting compliance with public health guidelines."

Emergency Statutes

In Washington State, the Department of Health (DOH) and the local health boards and districts are responsible for health planning and are granted authority for emergency planning and response. The Washington State Office of the Attorney General developed a memorandum in 2008 – Public Health Emergencies – which details the authority of local health officers and boards as well as other local jurisdictions during public health emergencies.

Below are selected statutes related to local emergency declarations, emergency expenditures, and related topics.

General Legal Citations

  • Ch. 38.52 RCW — Emergency Management
    • RCW 38.52.070(2) — Emergency declarations for all "political subdivisions," defined in RCW 38.52.010 to mean "any county, city or town"
    • RCW 38.52.091 — Authorizes local emergency management organizations to collaborate with other public and private agencies via a mutual aid or interlocal agreement  
  • RCW 39.04.280 — Competitive bidding waivers for emergency public works and emergency purchases
  • RCW 39.80.060 — Emergency architecture and engineering contracts
  • Ch. 42.12 RCW — Continuity of Government Act in the event of enemy attack or catastrophic incident
  • RCW 43.06.220 — Powers of governor pursuant to emergency proclamations
  • WAC 246-100-070 — Enforcement of local health officer orders

City/Town Statutes - Nondebatable Emergency Expenditures

  • RCW 35A.33.080 — Code cities operating with an annual budget
  • RCW 35A.34.140 — Code cities operating with a biennial budget
  • RCW 35.33.081 — Non-code cities and towns less than 300,000 population operating with an annual budget
  • RCW 35.34.140 — Non-code cities operating with a biennial budget
  • RCW 35.32A.060 — Cities over 300,000 population

County Statutes

  • RCW 36.40.180 — Nondebatable emergency expenditures
  • RCW 36.32.270 — Competitive bidding waivers for emergency public works and emergency purchases (references RCW 39.04.280)

Governor’s Emergency Authority

The governor has the authority to issue emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220, which has several different subsections.

The governor has sole authority to issue and extend emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220(1), which includes “[s]uch other activities as he or she reasonably believes should be prohibited to help preserve and maintain life, health, property or the public peace.” The “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” Proclamation 20-25 (March 23), and Proclamation 20-25.1 (April 2) extending the original order through 11:59 PM on May 4, were both issued under RCW 43.06.220(1).

The governor also has the authority to issue emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220(2), which includes waiving or suspending statutory obligations or limitations. However, these proclamations are limited to 30 days and can only be extended beyond 30 days by concurrent resolution of the legislature, or by the legislative leadership (majority and minority leaders of both houses) if the legislature is not in session.

An emergency proclamation issued under both subsections may require action from both the governor and the legislature (or its leadership) to extend all provisions of the proclamation beyond 30 days. If the legislature does not agree, the portion of the declaration issued under RCW 43.06.220(2) expires after 30 days while the portion issued under RCW 43.06.220(1) remains in effect until terminated by the governor.


Examples of Local Emergency Declarations

Below are selected examples of emergency proclamations issued by cities, counties, and special purpose districts. These documents are provided as examples only, and this is not a comprehensive list of jurisdictions that have declared an emergency or the latest actions that those jurisdictions have taken.

Mayor-Council Cities

Council-Manager Cities

Towns

Noncharter Counties

Charter Cities and Counties

Special Purpose Districts

  • Covington Water District Resolution No. 4409 (March 24) – Emergency declaration due to COVID-19; also temporarily suspends locking of meters, filing of liens, and certain fees until May 31, 2020.
  • Cowlitz County PUD No. 1 Resolution No. 2768 (March 14) – Authorizes general manager to declare an emergency, waive competitive bidding requirements, require non-essential employees to be sent home, and establish a limited duration supplemental leave program for employees. (See "Employee Pay and Leave Issues" section below for the supplemental leave policy.)
  • Port of Port Townsend COVID-19 Declaration of Emergency (March 25) – Emergency declaration by port district executive director, including commission resolution ratifying the declaration and authorizing rent deferrals up to 3 months for port tenants most directly impacted by COVID-19, provided that back rents must be repaid within 12 months.
  • Woodinville Water District Resolution No. 3959 (March 17) – Emergency declaration due to COVID-19; addresses waiver of competitive bidding requirements, closures of public facilities, suspension of liens and water service termination, and steps to ensure uninterrupted operation of water and sewer systems.

Delegating Authority

  • Woodland Resolution No. 720 (April 6) – Ratifying countywide delegation of authority to the Cowlitz 2 Fire and Rescue incident commander; authorizes commander to incur expenses up to $100,000 with allocation of expenses consistent with county’s interlocal emergency management agreement.

Emergency Court Orders


Stay-At-Home/Shelter In Place Orders

On March 23, Governor Inslee issued a statewide stay-at-home order. For more information on this order, see our page on COVID-19 Governor's Proclamations and State Guidance.

In addition to this statewide order, some local jurisdictions have issued their own stay-at-home orders. In some instances these orders were issued shortly before the governor issued his statewide order, while in other examples the local orders go further than the governor's order.

General Stay-at-Home Orders

  • Anacortes Mayoral Directive to Stay Home (March 23) – Directs residents to stay home except for essential business and governmental services and essential public infrastructure construction; includes examples of each category
  • Everett Mayoral Directive to Stay Home (March 20) – Directs residents to stay home except for essential business and governmental services and essential public infrastructure construction; includes examples of each category
  • Kittitas County Stay-at-Home Order (March 23) – Includes enforcement provisions/penalties and link to federal website for more information on what activities are essential.

Closing Hotels and Tourist Attractions

  • Chelan County Resolution No. 2020-38 (April 6) – Orders all short-term and vacation rentals to cease renting accommodation and close. Additionally, all campgrounds are closed and camping is prohibited as is use of any vehicle, recreational or otherwise, for camping, sleeping, or occupancy while not traveling in Chelan County. Chelan County let its short-term rental ban expire on May 4, but the resolution is retained here as an example.
  • Ocean Shores Executive Order 2020-04 (March 25) – Closing all hotels, motels, RV parks, short-term rentals, and other short-term lodging facilities due to COVID-19 pandemic. Includes subsequent orders amending and extending the initial order through May 18.

Emergency Orders Regarding Face Masks

Beginning in June 2020, Governor Inslee and state Secretary of Health John Wiesman have imposed additional face mask orders. For more information, see our blog post COVID-19 Facial Coverings – What's Required?

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (such as grocery stores or pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.

However, the CDC says face masks should not be placed on children under age 2, people with trouble breathing, or anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove their own mask without assistance.

In addition, some local jurisdictions have recommended or required residents and visitors to wear face masks, as shown in the selected examples below.

  • King County Directive to Wear Face Coverings (effective May 18) – Strongly urges people to wear face masks where 6-foot social distancing may not be possible and requiring businesses to post signage advising individuals to wear face coverings on the premises. Includes original health officer directive as well as FAQs.
  • Langley Emergency Proclamation Requiring Face Masks in Downtown Core (May 6) – Requiring residents and visitors to wear face masks within the central business core, due to an increase in visitors and some local businesses resuming limited activities.
  • Ocean Shores Executive Order 2020-12 (issued April 29 and amended May 5) – Executive order and amendment strongly recommending everyone wear cloth face masks when interacting with people outside of their household and in public spaces through June 30. Also addresses social distancing, hand sanitizer, and other cleanliness guidelines.
  • San Juan County Health Officer Order No. 2020-04 (May 15) – Requiring customers to wear cloth face masks within indoor businesses countywide beginning with Phase 2 of the "Safe Start Washington" plan. Violations of the order are misdemeanors punishable by fine and arrest.

Enforcement of Emergency Orders

Generally, state and local agencies are prioritizing education and outreach regarding emergency public health orders over enforcement, in hopes of gaining voluntary compliance. Some state agencies have expanded their options to include fines and citations (for example, the Department of Labor and Industries May 26, 2020 emergency rule).

However, as the crisis drags on and deepens, some agencies are considering whether greater enforcement actions may be necessary. Below are examples.

  • Jefferson County COVID-19 Food Service Enforcement Order (August 11) – Emergency order by county public health officer requiring all food service establishments to comply with state and local COVID-19 public health orders and authorizing county officials to conduct inspections and, if necessary, suspend or revoke operating permits for noncompliance.
  • Kirkland Ordinance No. O-4721 (March 31) – Temporarily makes it a misdemeanor to knowingly violate a lawful order of a public officer at the federal, state, county or local level in direct response to a declared proclaimed emergency or disaster affecting the city. Expires April 30, 2020.
  • Spokane Regional Health District COVID-19 Enforcement Actions for Non-Essential Businesses that Remain Open (2020) – Three-phase strategy, with supporting legal documents and instructions to law enforcement officers, for enforcing Proclamation 20-25 (stay-at-home order). Begins with outreach and determination of whether business is essential; after multiple contacts, escalates to injunction/temporary restraining order closing business.

Last Modified: September 22, 2020