The vast majority of Skagit County businesses are complying with emergency rules to curb the spread of COVID-19. A few have been cited and fined for violations.
Skagit Arms is the first Skagit County business to be fined by the state Department of Labor & Industries (L&I) for a COVID-19 mask violation, though at least one other local business has been cited by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board and has requested a hearing.
Skagit Speedway, meanwhile, received a written warning for a large outdoor political rally held at the racetrack in October, though no fine was issued.
The news release that noted the fine for Skagit Arms announced that eight other businesses throughout the state also had been cited and fined for mask violations in the past two months. Fines ranged from $900 to $7,500. Businesses have 15 days to appeal.
“The firearm and ammunition store (in Burlington) was fined $3,600 for not requiring employees or customers to wear masks and for violating social distancing rules,” L&I wrote in the Nov. 20 news release.
Other businesses were fined for operating when they weren’t allowed to, in violation of Gov. Jay Inslee’s four-phase Safe Start reopening plan. No Skagit businesses have been cited for Safe Start violations.
By state mandate, businesses must ensure all customers and workers on their premises wear masks to protect against the spread of COVID-19.
“(Skagit Arms) was told multiple times that they were violating the governor’s order and continued to, and the end result was that we opened a formal inspection and cited them,” L&I spokesperson Tim Church said.
When L&I receives COVID-19 safety complaints, it informs businesses and provides education on safety requirements, he said. Failure to comply results in a cease-and-desist letter warning of potential citations and fines.
On Tuesday, Skagit Arms said it had no comment on the Oct. 30 fine or whether it has appealed.
Most businesses complying
By and large, businesses are complying with the governor’s emergency proclamations put in place to slow the spread of COVID-19, Church said.
“Overall, the majority of businesses are doing it right, even the ones we get complaints about,” he said. “If there is something they can immediately fix, many of them do.”
L&I is one of three state agencies that looks into COVID-19 safety complaints.
Most complaints are submitted through the state Emergency Operations Center’s online portal on coronavirus.wa.gov.
The EOC then divvies out complaints to the agency with the most regulatory authority over a business, Church said. Complaints about establishments serving alcohol go to the Liquor and Cannabis Board, and those about hair and beauty salons go to the state Department of Licensing. The remainder go to L&I.
After L&I contacts a business to inform it of the complaint and provide education, it follows up with an unannounced spot check, Church said.
“They just walk into the place, like a customer would, and see what’s going on, and it gives us a pretty good sense,” he said.
The person conducting the check looks to see if masks are being worn and if the business has a sign posted at a door about the requirements.
Businesses that aren’t following the requirements receive a cease-and-desist letter.
Between Aug. 3 and Oct. 13, nine Skagit County businesses received cease-and-desist letters from L&I for mask or Safe Start complaints, he said.
Church said the last step is to open a formal investigation and consider a citation and fine.
Since July, L&I has received about 12,000 complaints through the EOC, has conducted about 8,000 spot checks at businesses statewide and issued 800 cease-and-desist letters, he said.
Twenty businesses have been cited and fined by L&I for mask violations. An additional 15 have been cited and fined for Safe Start violations.
The size of the fine depends on the kind of violation, size of the employer and history of safety violations, Church said.
Church said the numbers of complaints the EOC receives each day are up dramatically since Inslee announced new restrictions in mid-November. The state is receiving about 500 COVID-19 safety complaints a day, he said.
“Clearly the numbers of cases are getting worse and the concern is higher, and with new restrictions people are concerned about what’s happening and want to make sure places are following the rules,” he said.
Others receive citations, warnings
One Skagit County business has been fined by the state Liquor and Cannabis Board (LCB) for COVID-19 safety violations.
The Baker Lake Travel Center near Concrete received an administrative violation notice, which is a citation, for failure to enforce mask requirements for patrons and employees, said LCB spokesperson Julie Graham.
She said the citation has a penalty of a $500 fine or a five-day suspension. The business has asked for an informal hearing, and there is no final penalty yet.
Skagit Speedway north of Burlington was issued a written warning by the LCB for a large rally held at the racetrack on Oct. 1 for former Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp. The estimated attendance was 1,000.
“The event held at Skagit Speedway on Oct. 1, 2020 appeared to violate the governor’s current proclamations in several ways,” states a Nov. 3 LCB report, which was obtained through a public records request.
In the report, an LCB officer wrote “photos and video show the large crowds that attended the event and show that participants were not wearing facial coverings. Additionally, those who appeared to be running the event were not seen wearing facial coverings.”
There was also a live band, which was not allowed under COVID-19 restrictions, the report states.
The LCB handled the complaint because the racetrack has a liquor license, though no alcohol was served at the event, the report states.
An LCB officer issued a written warning to Skagit Speedway for violation of its liquor license, which requires that licensees not “engage in or allow behavior that provokes conduct which presents a threat to public safety,” the report states.
“Further public safety violations may result in a (citation),” the report continues.
Graham said the LCB went with a written warning, not a fine, for the following reasons: the racetrack was rented to an organization that hosted the event; Skagit Speedway did not charge admission or sell any products, including alcohol; the event did not result in monetary gain; and no alcohol was consumed at the event.
“We have been trying not to penalize a licensee without first educating them on the intricacies of the laws, rules and policies,” she said in an email.
Graham said three LCB captains reviewed the facts and decided a warning was most appropriate.
Skagit Speedway owner Steve Beitler said Wednesday the warning was unjustified and he plans to contest it.
He said his company, BC Group LLC, rented the racetrack to the Culp campaign for a “protest rally.”
Beitler said the Oct. 1 event had nothing to do with Skagit Speedway or its liquor license, and that he has not used his license all year because the racetrack has been closed due to COVID-19 restrictions.
“It’s not a valid violation,” he said. “It has nothing to do with my racetrack or racing organization.”
He said no racing took place during the rally, and he supports the constitutional right to protest.
Culp held other large outdoor campaign rallies that were described as protests in the weeks leading up to the Nov. 3. election.
Graham said the LCB fined the operator of another racetrack — Yakima Speedway — for an October racing event that violated Safe Start requirements.
She said the Yakima and Skagit Speedway events were different because the Yakima facility had received information on COVID-19 requirements and a warning in advance of the event.
“Because the licensee intentionally defied the officer’s warning not to hold the event, LCB determined a fine was warranted,” Graham said in an email.
She said Skagit Speedway received no prior warning.
While the business was not cited or fined, “Skagit Speedway has been provided education by the (Liquor and Cannabis Board) on requirements for their business during the COVID-19 pandemic several times,” the Nov. 3 LCB report states.
The state Department of Licensing was unable to provide information on COVID-19 violations at any Skagit County businesses with cosmetology licenses by the newspaper’s deadline.