None of the 55 new COVID-19 cases documented since the Skagit County Republican gala fundraiser in late August have been tied to the event, county spokesperson Laura Han said Wednesday.

She also noted that contact tracers don’t ask about attendance at specific events and rely on honesty to determine where someone might have been exposed to the virus.

Republican County Party Chairman Bill Bruch said this week that he had no qualms about holding the Lincoln/Reagan Day Gala, which drew over 400 people for a dinner, entertainment and candidate speeches.

Temperature checks were given to attendees, and masks were available to those who wanted them, he said.

However, at least one political candidate who spoke at the fundraiser now says he regrets his decision to attend, partly because few people wore masks.

“When I saw there were no masks, I should have turned around and left,” Peter Browning said in an interview Monday. “That was a real mistake.”

Browning is also a current member of the Skagit Regional Health board of directors and worked for 19 years as the director of Skagit County’s health department. He will face Democrat Mary Hudson in the general election for county commissioner.

He said he was motivated to attend because, as a nonpartisan candidate, he lacks the support of the local political parties to help him fund-raise and get his message out.

Browning was one of several speakers at the Aug. 29 event. Also speaking were Republican candidate for governor Loren Culp and current Skagit County Commissioner Ron Wesen, who is running as a Republican for a different commissioner seat.

Browning said he wore his mask for the first half-hour or so at the gala, but removed it before he spoke and didn’t put it back on. He said he felt he was able to keep sufficient distance from others in the open airplane hangars where the event was held. But he said did not intend to downplay the dangers posed by COVID-19.

He called the virus the “most impactful disease in our lifetime” and encouraged people to continue wearing masks, washing their hands and keeping social distance.

While Browning said he disagrees with those who downplay the severity of the virus, he believes in their right to hold differing views.

“The Republicans have their beliefs, and I’m not challenging that,” he said.

Browning has received a $500 campaign contribution from the county Republican Party, according to the state Public Disclosure Commission. Wesen, a longtime Republican, has received $5,000 from the county GOP.

Skagit County Public Health Officer Howard Leibrand has said the precautions noted for the gala were insufficient for such a large gathering.

They were also in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s proclamation earlier this year that created a four-phase approach to reopen the state for regular activities.

Skagit County’s is in Phase 2 with new cases still above the level to advance to Phase 3. Gatherings of 200 or more people are not allowed until Phase 4, when the number of new COVID-19 cases has fallen dramatically. Han said Public Health was not aware of plans for the Republican fundraiser before it occurred.

Bruch, who is also a candidate for state representative in the 10th Legislative District, said he believes the measures taken for the gala were enough.

“We did every protocol we could possibly do to keep things safe,” he said.

Bruch told the Skagit Valley Herald that he distrusts advice from state and local public health officials, which he perceives as overreactions to the virus.

One of his blog posts on the Republican Party website states that most COVID-19 deaths have been people over age 70 with pre-existing health conditions. He also challenges whether all deaths tied to the virus were actually caused by the virus.

His blog post, titled “Letter to the Skagit Valley Herald,” calls the previous reporting of the gala a “Hit Piece” and notes that the fundraiser was a “peaceful protest.” He calls for Inslee to “end the emergency and lift the mandates.”

The end of his blog post stated: “P.S. The day before our event on August 28th, at the Al Sharpton “Get Off Our Necks Rally”, an estimated 50,000 people marched and gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C., many wearing Black Lives Matter T-shirts, as speakers demanded racial equality. But you won’t hear any Democrat bias media upset about no social distancing or people not having to be subject to contract tracing ...”

A PDF of the “Letter to the Skagit Valley Herald” as it appeared online Wednesday can be found with this story on goskagit.com.

As of Wednesday, Skagit County Public Health reported no new COVID-19 cases from the previous day. Skagit County has recorded 22 deaths from COVID-19, the same as Aug. 13. There have been 1,066 confirmed cases since March 10.

— Reporter Brandon Stone: bstone@skagitpublishing.com, 360-416-2112, Twitter: @Brandon_SVH

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