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The nonprofit group ‘We Will’ met to discuss strategies to reopen small businesses

Andrew Gustafson (left) and Mark Harmsworth (right) speak at “We Will†meeting in Ferndale on January 7, 2021. // Photo by Georgia Costa

Correction: A previous version of this story misidentified the formation date of “We Will” and implied support from community members who did not attend the event. This story has been updated for clarity and to correct the error.

By Georgia Costa

As COVID-19 infections break records in Whatcom County and restrictions continue to inhibit non-essential businesses, the Whatcom County business forum group “We Will” gathered to strategize the revival and maintenance of their businesses.

Jan. 7, “We Will” met in a Ferndale gym. Approximately 25 people sat in front of a podium while small-business owners had a space to share their financial grievances during COVID-19. 

The Washington Policy Center’s director of the Small Business Center, Mark Harmsworth, spoke as a panelist and shared advice for struggling businesses during the pandemic. Harmsworth is also a former Washington state legislator of 40 years.

Business owners can arrange a 15-minute meeting with their state legislator, Harmsworth said to the audience. Harmsworth pushes for policy for businesses to function and believes the real solution to keep the economy from sinking is to open the “non-essential” businesses.

“Legislators schedule many meetings with constituents,” Harmsworth said. “These meetings push the legislators to introduce new bills to the senate [concerning] opening up businesses.”

Rather than having non-essential businesses closed, the option to open with necessary health precautions should be available, Harmsworth said at the meeting.

“[The restrictions] are not justified,” said Harmsworth. “It was reasonable when the virus first began to spread and we didn’t know anything about it. The governor’s office has issued executive orders that are arbitrary.”

The meeting’s speakers varied from restaurant owners to government officials, who advocated for an overrule of Gov. Jay Inslee’s lockdown restrictions.

Amberleigh Brownson, co-owner of the restaurant Leader Block Wine Co. & Eatery, emphasized her frustration with her restaurant’s reduced hours at the meeting. Brownson’s restaurant staff has gone from 15 to five people during the lockdown. 

“Every day is another fight to keep my employees employed … If we stay as we are, we will close completely in a month and a half,” Brownson said. 

Mary Gibb, the co-owner of Gary’s Plumbing and Heating, gave her support to all those who shared their financial grievances. During her brief speech, Gibb said she would assist businesses that undergo significant stress under the lockdown.

Gibb said her company occasionally donates plumbing or heating services for free, and also gives discounts to those who are struggling. 

Gibb is a member for “We Will” and said she believes business owners should decide for themselves whether to open or not.

The “We Will group” held its first event, The Turkey Rebellion rally and cruise, on Nov. 21, 2020. In December 2020, the group organized a protest at Bellis Fair Mall called the ‘Santa Rebellion’.

The holiday season and desire for familial gatherings are what inspired the “peacefully protesting of grievances,” said “We Will” leader Joe Murphy. “[Inslee’s restrictions] create open fear propaganda that causes people to hate each other. Open up the schools and businesses. This is a fight for our well-being.”

There has been an immense increase in positive cases and hospitalizations through the holidays, said Erika Lautenbach, director of the Whatcom County Health Department.

Amy Cloud, the Whatcom County Health Department’s public information officer, said the fewer people circulating in public and having close contact with others, the more likely people are to reduce transmission.

“It would be inadvisable to engage in activities that encourage social gathering without essential precautions,” Cloud said. “It’s less than a matter of capacity [in non-essential businesses]. People still must be diligent. We want our local businesses to reopen as quickly and as safely as possible.”

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