About 400 people attended the annual Lincoln/Reagan Day Gala, violating public health guidelines aimed at reducing the spread of COVID-19.

Elected officials and candidates spoke at the Aug. 29 Republican Party campaign fundraising event, including County Commissioner Ron Wesen, commissioner candidate Peter Browning, state Rep. Carolyn Eslick and state Sen. Ron Muzzall.

Bill Bruch, chair of the Skagit County Republican Party and candidate for the state House of Representatives in the 10th Legislative District, said steps were taken to reduce the spread of the virus.

“The whole thing was completely altered” when compared to a normal year, he said.

While Bruch said he thinks Gov. Jay Inslee and other leaders have dramatically overstated the danger of COVID-19, he said event organizers did the best they could to follow public health guidelines.

County Health Officer Howard Leibrand said a gathering of this size is unsafe, regardless of what is done to mitigate the risk.

“I appreciate that they’re taking some measures ... but these measures are not adequate,” Leibrand said.

The event also violated an Inslee proclamation banning large gatherings, according to a spokesperson for the governor.

Bruch said the event was held in two airplane hangars totaling 23,000 square feet, and the hangars had one door open to improve ventilation. Tables were capped at six people rather than eight, and were more spread out.

He said there were three temperature-checking stations, and no one with a fever got into the event.

Masks were distributed, but Bruch estimated about 5% of those attending chose to wear one.

He said interest was high enough that another 100 tickets could have been sold. But he said organizers decided to cap the attendance to accommodate the changes.

Even with these efforts to reduce the spread of COVID-19, Leibrand said a gathering of this size isn’t safe.

“In a group of that size, the chance that someone is infected is pretty close to 100%,” he said.

Spot temperature checks aren’t effective, because only about 40% of people with COVID-19 develop a fever, Leibrand said.

And while people need to remove their masks to eat or drink, best practices would dictate that they wear masks at all other times, he said.

Leibrand said opening one of the hangar doors likely didn’t provide enough ventilation to consider this an outdoor event.

Further, he said this kind of gathering is disrespectful to those who have had to adapt to life under COVID-19, and have lost loved ones or their livelihoods as a result.

“Everyone else has adapted,” he said. “You don’t get a bye because this is political.”

Wesen, who was among the 400 who attended, said he chose not to wear a mask.

He said he tried to stay 6 feet from others at all times, and with the other precautions put in place he said he believed it was safe to attend.

“Everybody has to make choices they’re comfortable with,” Wesen said.

Leibrand said it’s wrong to think about risk on an individual basis. Even if an attendee knows the risk, if they were exposed to the virus at this event, they are likely to spread it to those they live with and could infect anyone they later meet.

Bruch said the party’s fundraising efforts were put on hold during the early months of the pandemic. With fall coming and colder weather on the horizon, he said he was worried this would be the local party’s only chance to host a fundraiser that was somewhat outdoors.

He said he’s frustrated that Black Lives Matter-affiliated protests in Seattle and elsewhere are not drawing criticism from state leaders, despite the fact that they also aren’t in line with best public health practices.

“We’re doing nothing different than other rallies throughout the state,” Bruch said.

However, these gatherings are fully outdoors, and most in attendance wear masks.

Meanwhile, the Skagit County Democrats decided to cancel their annual gala because of the virus.

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

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