OLYMPIA – Coffee shops, construction companies, bars, casinos, long-term care facilities, a hospital.
Throughout the COVID-19 state of emergency, some businesses across Spokane struggled to follow guidelines.
Some chose to stay open despite regulations because they feared losing business. Others failed to offer proper social distancing for employees or signs to customers about wearing masks.
As of the first week of May, the Washington state Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) had issued $7.3 million worth of fines to businesses failing to follow COVID-19 guidelines or mask mandates. The state Liquor and Cannabis Board received 11,836 complaints about bars refusing to follow guidelines.
From January to March of this year alone, 25 Spokane businesses received citations from L&I, totaling nearly $174,000. The county had the second-highest number of businesses cited during this period, following King County, which cited 26 businesses. Pierce County was third, citing 19.
“Clearly, Spokane is just a small slice,” L&I spokesman Tim Church said.
The businesses in Spokane with the most fines during that time period are:
- Cole’s Coffee Shop in Spokane Valley, which received more than $126,000 in fines
- Huntwood Industries, a cabinet maker in Liberty Lake, which received $6,000 in fines
- Fairwood Retirement Services, which received $4,800 in fines
None of them returned The Spokesman-Review’s request for comment.
Some of the businesses may have appealed their citations, which can take a long time to resolve, Church said.
For the entire state of emergency, 15 Spokane bars were investigated for a COVID-19 related complaint, according to the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis Board. Most received some sort of warning, but five received some kind of penalty, starting at $500 or a five-day suspension.
The Liquor and Cannabis Board deals only with businesses, such as bars or restaurants, that have some sort of liquor license.
The violations include not having a sign on the door signaling to customers to wear a mask and keeping indoor dining open during a time when it was not allowed or at very little capacity, Church said. For a restaurant or a gym that remained opened when they shouldn’t have been, they received fines by the day.
Spokane was in Phase 1 of reopening, which kept the county relatively closed, until mid-February. The county then moved to Phase 2, which still restricted indoor dining to 25% capacity.
Violations are broken down into two categories: general or serious. Both types can be considered willful or not willful, meaning the business disregards known rules or has no idea what the rules are in the first place.
A serious violation has a fee associated with it, and if it is willful, the fine grows.
“The fines go up exponentially,” Church said.
Much of the $7.3 million in L&I fines statewide come from a few businesses who stayed open or ignored worker safety. Gebbers Farm Operations in Brewster received a more than $2 million fine in December after workers complained about COVID-19 conditions. Stuffy’s II Restaurant in Longview is facing nearly $1 million in citations. Maple Valley Fitness is facing more than $412,000 in fines, Church said.
In Spokane County, so far this year, the company with the largest number of fines is Cole’s Coffee Shop in Spokane Valley.
The coffee shop had three inspections in February, each resulting in multiple COVID-19 violations. The shop had 14 serious COVID-19 violations totaling more than $126,000 in fines.
One of the citations alleged the coffee shop was open for business and offering indoor dining services despite the state’s emergency orders prohibiting businesses from offering indoor dining at the time.
“COVID-19 remains a significant health risk that has continued to worsen in Washington State and continued operations in contravention of the orders of the Governor unnecessarily endangers employees and creates a substantial probability that death or serious harm could result,” the citation reads.
L&I said information about where the citations are in the potential appeals process was not immediately available.
Either a member of the public or an employee can submit COVID-19 complaints to L&I at the state’s coronavirus response website. L&I oversees both public-facing businesses, such as a grocery store, and businesses that aren’t public-facing, such as a construction or manufacturing company.
Many of the large citations are likely in the appeals process, which could go on for some time, Church said. Smaller fines likely are paid sooner because it can cost more to appeal than pay the fine.
Providence Sacred Heart Medical Center received a $4,200 fine in March of this year for not ensuring “their employees practiced social distancing at nursing workstations, report rooms, and break rooms,” according to the citation.
A statement from Providence Health Care said the citation alleged the need for additional social distancing during employee breaks in several areas of the hospital: “Providence is cooperating with Labor & Industries, we have addressed the allegation and have appealed the violation. That process is on-going.”
When L&I visits a business, inspectors come unannounced, Church said.
Lilac Lanes and Casino general manager Ernie Williams said it was frustrating that they did not get a warning or time to fix their issues before receiving a fine.
The bowling alley and casino in Spokane received a $3,600 fine.
Williams said the citation alleged they did not have enough signage for social distancing or masks, and a few customers were not wearing masks properly.
Williams said they fixed everything immediately.
They appealed the fines and got them down to $2,700, Williams said. They’ve since paid the fine, which added to the million-dollar debt they’ve incurred since the pandemic started.
He said it was “completely unfair” that they did not get a warning. He said they always protected their staff and customers.
“We never endangered our staff at all,” he said. “It was frustrating.”
Other businesses cited by L&I in Spokane include Super 1 Foods, which received a $2,700 fine for not ensuring employees properly social distanced or wore a mask. Super 1 Foods did not respond to comment by press time.
Most of the other businesses cited this year are construction or manufacturing companies in Spokane.
Laurel Demkovich’s reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.