Public Health Emergencies
This page provides an overview of public health emergencies for local governments in Washington State, including public health emergency authority, office closures, remote/restricted public meetings, workplace laws, and examples of local public health emergency policies and declarations.
It is part of MRSC's series on Emergency Management.
This page is intended to provide general guidance for local government officials and employers, rather than detailed guidance for public health providers.
- Ch. 43.20 RCW – State Board of Health
- Ch. 246-100 WAC – Administrative rules regarding communicable and certain other diseases
- Ch. 43.70 RCW – State Department of Health
- RCW 43.70.130 – Powers and duties of state Secretary of Health
- Ch. 70.05 RCW – Local health departments, boards, and officers
- Ch. 70.46 RCW – Health districts
- Ch. 70.26 RCW – Pandemic influenza preparedness
- RCW 49.17.062-.064 – Mandatory notification of workplace disease exposure/spread and protections for high-risk employees
- RCW 49.17.485 – Employers must allow employees/contractors to wear personal protective equipment during public health emergencies
- RCW 42.30.230 – Authorizing remote or restricted capacity public meetings due to emergencies
In Washington State, the Department of Health (DOH) and local health boards and districts are generally responsible for public health planning and are granted authority for emergency planning and response.
The Washington State Office of the Attorney General issued a 2008 memorandum on public health emergencies which details the authority of local health officers and boards as well as other local jurisdictions during public health emergencies.
Local government legislative bodies (such as city council or the board of county commissioners) may also declare emergencies as described on our page Emergency Declarations and Authority.
The Governor has the authority to issue emergency proclamations under RCW 43.06.220, which has two distinct components: (1) prohibiting activities and (2) waiving or suspending existing statutes. Both components have been used in past public health emergencies, most notably during the 2020-22 COVID-19 pandemic.
For more information on the governor’s emergency authority generally, see our page Emergency Declarations and Authority.
The state Secretary of Health can also issue public health orders. RCW 43.70.130(7) grants the secretary of health the same authority as local health officers during an emergency. During the COVID-19 pandemic, statewide facial covering orders were generally issued by the secretary of health and incorporated into the governor’s emergency proclamations by reference.
The President can declare national emergencies as described on our page Emergency Declarations and Authority.
In addition, the U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS) can declare a public health emergency under Section 319 of the Public Health Service Act (42 U.S.C. § 247d). These declarations terminate in 90 days or upon the Secretary's declaration that the emergency no longer exists, whichever comes first, but may be renewed in additional 90-day increments.
For a list of current public health emergencies declared by the HHS Secretary, see the HHS webpage Declarations of a Public Health Emergency.
Local, state, and federal public health emergency declarations can potentially trigger certain state laws. These laws may apply even in the absence of a local emergency declaration. In particular:
- Workplace Exposure and High-Risk Workers: If the president has declared a national public health emergency or a regional public health emergency covering every county in the state, or if the governor has declared a statewide public health emergency, many employers must provide notification of potential workplace exposure or disease spread, and employers are prohibited from discriminating against employees at high risk of severe illness. See RCW 49.17.062-.064.
- Face Masks and Personal Protective Equipment: If the president has declared a national or regional public health emergency, the governor has declared a state of emergency, or the local health officer has issued an emergency order, and an employer has not required its employees or contractors to wear a specific type of face mask or other personal protective equipment (PPE), the employer must allow employees/contractors to voluntarily wear PPE as long as the PPE does not create a workplace hazard, interfere with security requirements, or conflict with state PPE standards. See RCW 49.17.485.
If an emergency has been declared at the local, state, or federal level and a public agency determines that it cannot hold a normal public meeting with reasonable safety, the agency may authorize remote-only (virtual) public meetings or hold in-person public meetings at which physical attendance by members of the public is limited or prohibited.
However, the agency may not take action at such a public meeting unless it has provided an option for the public to listen to the proceedings. See RCW 42.30.230.
During a public health emergency, it may become necessary to temporarily close local government offices.
Generally, the local legislative body (such as city council, the board of county commissioners, or the governing body of a special purpose district) must take action to close the agency’s offices, unless it has delegated this authority to the chief executive through code or local policy. Legislative bodies have the authority to set the days and hours in which local government offices are open. For example, see RCW 35A.21.070 (code cities), RCW 35.21.175 (other cities and towns), and RCW 36.16.100 (counties).
One possible exception is in counties where separately elected officials may wish to close their departments. While we find no clear legal authority for them to do so absent a countywide policy delegating this authority, case law and attorney general opinions indicate that the board of commissioners generally has quite limited authority to impose requirements regarding other personnel matters related to non-union county officers and employees hired by and under the control of other county elected officials, absent agreement with those elected officials. So, to the extent that the department heads do not exceed their budget authority, there is an argument that each of the independently elected department heads has the authority to close their offices.
In 2006, the state Office of the Attorney General issued an informal opinion addressing whether a local health department has the authority to close another public agency's offices. The informal opinion states that a local health department may have the authority to close another public agency's offices but that the better practice is to work with the jurisdiction in closing government buildings if public health necessitates closure. The informal opinion also addresses whether employees must be paid in such a situation, concluding that the answer may vary depending on local ordinances, employment rules, or labor contracts.
Both quarantine and isolation can be used to potentially slow or stop the spread of disease:
- Quarantine refers to separating and restricting the movement of individuals who might have been exposed to a communicable disease.
- Isolation refers to separating people who are already sick from those who are not currently sick.
Quarantine and isolation are typically the responsibility of local health officers. While cities likely do have the authority to impose quarantine or isolation (see City of Seattle v. Cottin, 144 Wash. 572, 576, 258 P. 520, 521 (1927)), the better practice is to coordinate with the local health officer.
For more information, see:
- WA Department of Health: Isolation and Quarantine Guidelines and Forms
- U.S. Congressional Research Service: Federal and State Quarantine and Isolation Authority (2014)
During a widespread public health emergency, gift of public funds questions may arise. For example, may a local government:
- Provide employees with paid leave if they are ordered not to come to work and cannot work from home, or if certain employees are unable to work due to school/childcare closures?
- Make payments to nonprofits to provide childcare services?
- Provide financial support to businesses or low-income workers who have been negatively affected by public health orders?
- Subsidize local healthcare testing for community members?
- Temporarily lend property to a healthcare provider to expand healthcare capacity?
During the COVID-19 pandemic, the state Attorney General's Office issued two memorandums on gifts of public funds:
- Memorandum on Gift of Public Funds and COVID-19 (2020) – Concludes that generally speaking, local governments have broad authority to make expenditures combating a pandemic because such efforts further fundamental public purposes such as protecting public health and welfare.
- Legality of Options for Supporting Small Businesses and Low-Income Individuals During a Public Health Crisis (2020) – Concludes that local governments may provide cash assistance to low-income individuals struggling due to a public health crisis. Small business grants/loans are likely permissible, with safeguards in place to prevent fraud/abuse, as long as the local government can establish a clear nexus between such programs and either protecting the local economy or promoting compliance with public health guidelines.
Below are selected examples of public health emergency plans adopted by local governments.
- Bothell Personnel Policies – see Section 12.4, Emergency/Disaster/Inclement Weather and Pandemic Preparedness
- Duvall Public Health Emergency and/or Pandemic Response and Recovery Policy and Procedures (2020)
- Newcastle Pandemic and Public Health Emergency Response and Recovery Policy (2020)
- Northshore Utility District Pandemic Policy (2020)
- Pacific COVID-19 Pandemic Preventative and Emergency Response Plan (2020)
- Shoreline Pandemic Emergency Continuity of Government Plan (2020)
- Sumner Pandemic Policy (2021) – Also includes vaccine incentive to encourage employees to get COVID-19 vaccine
- Woodinville Water District Pandemic and Public Health Emergency Response and Recovery Policy (2020)
Below are selected examples of public health emergency declarations issued by local authorities. These are examples only and do not necessarily indicate that the public health emergency is still in effect.
- Clark County Resolution No. 2019-01-09 (2019) – Declaring local public health emergency due to measles outbreak and authority use of emergency powers; terminates in 30 days unless extended or limited by county council
- Olympia Ordinance No. 7146 (2018) – Declaring public health emergency regarding homelessness; expires in roughly three years.
- Tacoma Ordinance No. 28430 (2017) – Declaring state of emergency relating to the conditions of homeless encampments; expires in five months
- We have numerous examples of COVID-19 emergency declarations in our Sample Document Library; we are in the process of evaluating these documents and will select a few for long-term retention on this page.
Below are selected resources to assist local governments with public health emergency planning.
- WA Department of Health: Pandemic Planning – Information for local governments, public health agencies, tribes, and other organizations.
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC):
- Emergency Preparedness and Response – Resources for emergency planners, fire responders/health professionals, and others
- Public Health Professionals Gateway: Public Health Law – Federal program that works to improve public health by developing law-related tools and providing legal technical assistance to public health practitioners and policymakers
- National Association of County and City Health Officials: Public Health Preparedness – Information to support local health departments as they prepare for, respond to, and recover from public health emergencies