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Thursday, October 1, 2020

‘Snitch List:’ Non-compliance complaints lead to threats

Bellingham community members named in complaint list describe fear, frustration as tension about reopening continues

Angela Lenz, owner of Tails-a-Wagging, works with a group of daycare dogs. Her business received a complaint for staying open, but they have received essential status from the Governor’s Office. // Photo courtesy Angela Lenz

By Olivia Hobson

People who filed complaints to the Washington State Coronavirus Response about nonessential businesses remaining open during the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order say they have been afraid, frustrated and subjected to threats. 

While many of the complaints were filed from the greater Seattle area, a large number of complaints were filed against Bellingham businesses; all complaints are added to a database maintained by the state, which is a public record. A version of the list that has been circulating through Facebook groups across the state names the business that received complaints, the individual who made the complaint, their reason for doing so and the individual’s contact information, if it was provided. 

The Front contacted individuals who filed complaints about Bellingham businesses. These sources requested anonymity to avoid further retaliation. The Seattle Times reported that some complainants had received death threats. As of May 18, the Bellingham Police Department has not received any reports of threats as a result of the list.

The complaint form states that all information collected is subject to public inspection, or a public records request per the Public Records Act (RCW 42.56). However, some individuals said they filed complaints without realizing their information would be released. 

The Front used the Internet Archive WayBack Machine to confirm that the report webpage has been revised multiple times since it launched March 30. While it was never required for individuals to file their personal information with the complaint, the website did not clarify that remaining anonymous was an option until May 9. In addition, the public information notice was moved from the bottom of the page to the top and its font size was increased on May 9.

“I don’t have any regrets about the action I took. The fact is it was about saving lives. It was about public risk,” said one person who filed a complaint against their employer for remaining open. “What I might regret is that it is public and that people could come and ridicule me for it.”

The employee said a stranger recently commented on an unrelated post on the source’s personal Facebook page. The commenter, who tagged the company Facebook account where the employee works, seemed to be trying to expose the source as a whistleblower, they said. The employee said they are afraid of losing their unemployment benefits and of retaliation from the company. 

Another person who filed a complaint said it was a hard decision that they did not take lightly.

“I am staying home and doing my part, for the greater good, as much as I want to be doing what I love and earning my living,” the source said in an email. “I won’t put my family’s or client’s health above a dollar, but I can understand that there are things that might make a person do so.” 

Bellingham doggy daycare Tails-a-Wagging, owned by Angela Lenz, was one of the businesses that received a complaint. Tails-a-Wagging received essential status from the governor’s office and has worked to ensure employee and client safety, Lenz said. 

“I don’t personally have a problem with somebody filing a complaint,” Lenz said. “I would have preferred that they called me and then I would have had this conversation with them, but they have every right to express themselves.”

The lists that have been circulating on social media compile the contents of the state’s database. Multiple lists are circulating on Facebook groups like Reopen Washington State – #ReopenWA. There are comments like “Snitches get stitches,” “Snitches are little b*****s and deserve what they get,” and “Like a friend said, Snitches wind up in Ditches,” on posts in the group.

The group sees hundreds of new posts and members a day, who discuss the threat the lockdown poses to their constitutional rights and livelihoods. Almost 4,500 members engage with each other about their stance on the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, debating about reopening, the lockdown impacts, governmental overreach and threats to freedom. While some members do acknowledge the threat posed by the pandemic and the requirement for safety precautions, many of the louder voices express their distaste for ongoing restrictions and fear of government oppression. Many support a rallying cry to reject the stay-at-home order and disregard safety precautions altogether.

Sen. Doug Ericksen, who represents the 42nd Legislative District, has a personal Facebook account that has been active on the Reopen Washington State group. Ericksen’s account posted a video of the recent Lynden Freedom Parade to the group, and a video in which he critiques Washington State’s response to the COVID-19 crisis for threatening constitutional rights and liberties, but said he’s not affiliated with the group in any formal way.

“If it’s Facebook, I have no affiliation with that group, so I’m not really sure what you’re talking about,” Ericksen said. “They might be wonderful people, they might not, I don’t really know.”

The threats are another element in the ongoing tension resulting from the “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, along with lockdown protests and voiced frustration about the order’s expectations and regulations. In response to the threats, the Office of the Governor gave an official statement to the Front. 

“The governor strongly condemns harassment of any kind. We find it extremely troubling that people who were trying to keep other Washingtonians healthy by reporting violators are subject to this,” the statement said. “This threatening behavior is unacceptable and repugnant.” 

Other members on the Reopen Washington Facebook page as well as those identified in the lists have said the threats are a form of doxxing, the publishing of private information with malicious intent. Some on the page wrote that they do not support the threats, but others have embraced it, writing, “Let’s get the WA snitches and dox them.” 

An anonymous source said that the threats could impact complaints filed in the future.

“I did it out of concern for my community,” they said. “But people aren’t going to want to report if they hear about people getting threats.”

The threats may be a form of doxxing, but the public records people are requesting do not contain information that would be considered inherently damaging, said Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center.

The Washington Public Records Act stipulates that information can be withheld or deleted from released records if it will create an unreasonable invasion into personal privacy. Emails and telephone numbers do not fall into that category most of the time, Hiestand said. 

“The legal standard for invasion of privacy requires that the information disclosed be reasonably shocking or reasonably disturbing,” Hiestand said. “It is weird, this whole idea of emails and telephone numbers, because there is an element of privacy involved in those. It may be time to look at those laws again to find ways of balancing these concerns out because you do see this happening more and more.”

The list and the reactions it has received created frustration for all parties involved. Members in the Reopen Washington Facebook group have expressed anger at people turning against their own neighbors and community members trying to make it through difficult times. Individuals named on the list say they are concerned that things are moving back to normal too quickly and the impacts of the pandemic will be prolonged. 

“It’s foolish to think that we’re going to reopen the economy and go back to normal,” said the first anonymous source, who complained about their employer. “The American definition of normal has not been working for people.”

Ericksen said he sees the need for a faster reopening. 

“Washington state should reopen as quickly as possible while protecting the health of the people,” Ericksen said. “I think we can start moving forward a lot quicker than we are. I also think it’s really important that whatever emergency orders go into place apply equally and evenly across the entire community.”

Ericksen said the impact of the lockdown is being felt primarily in the private sector. 

“I think that the government and the bureaucrats need to realize that small business owners and people who are going to go bankrupt and lose their livelihoods need to find ways to get back to work as quickly as possible,” Ericksen said. “Those are the people who are suffering right now.” 

In an article published in the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice in 2006, author Adam Skelton, the chief of the Prevention Effectiveness and Health Economics Branch at U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, predicted that the next influenza pandemic would have a disproportionate impact on the private sector than on the public sector. According to data released from the Economic Policy Institute, there have been more unemployment-benefit claims from the private sector than from the public sector. For example, the public administration sector accounted for 1% of claims from March 14 to May 2. Accomodation and food services accounted for 29%.

Lenz, the owner of Tails-a-Wagging, said she understands why people submitted complaints, and acknowledges that they have every right to do so. She also believes that protecting people’s health has to remain a priority. However, she thinks that Washington needs to find a balance in order to start moving forward. 

“Some businesses will not recover from this. There’s no question about it,” Lenz said. “We need to get back to a point where we’re able to survive.” 

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