As new cases of COVID-19 reach record levels in Washington state and residents are urged not to travel or gather for the holidays, the Evergreen State is among three with legislators reportedly attending a conference in Maui, Hawaii.
The lawmakers come from Washington, California and Texas, according to reporting by Politico, and are at the Fairmont Kea Lani hotel for a conference hosted by the Independent Voter Project.
Dan Howle, the Independent Voter Project’s chairman and executive director, on Wednesday confirmed with McClatchy that Washington legislators were at the conference. He did not answer questions regarding who they are or how many are there.
He said about 100 people came to the hotel for the event, including about 20 state legislators, and daily participation is “in the neighborhood of 75” people. The conference has a 15-year history at the hotel, Howle said, and has drawn legislators from a dozen or so states over the years, as well as governors. But, he said, no governors were invited this year.
The Sacramento Bee reported that both Democrats and Republicans were participating in the conference, which started Monday and is scheduled to last four days.
Spokespeople for the four legislative caucuses in Washington state did not identify members as conference attendees when asked.
A spokesperson for Washington’s Senate Democrats told McClatchy Wednesday that there hadn’t been any requests for reimbursement from members. Politico reported that moderate Democrats often attend the event, and spokesperson Aaron Wasser said he had so far confirmed that Sens. Steve Hobbs and Mark Mullet did not go.
Senate Republican spokesperson Kim Wirtz told McClatchy she had checked with all members and none were participating, and spokespeople for both caucuses in the House told McClatchy they weren’t aware of any members in attendance.
The conference is taking place as cases spike in Washington and nationwide. On Sunday, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee announced a new round of restrictions on gatherings and businesses in response to the ongoing “third wave,” two days after Washington joined California and Oregon in issuing advisories that ask visitors arriving for non-essential travel from out-of-state to quarantine for 14 days.
Washington’s travel advisory also includes the following: “Washingtonians are encouraged to stay home or in their region and avoid non-essential travel to other states or countries. Avoiding travel can reduce the risk of virus transmission and bringing the virus back to Washington.”
In a phone interview with McClatchy, Howle said his organization had “dozens” of phone calls with hotel representatives ahead of this year’s event, ticking off tasks such as approving seating diagrams for every meeting space to guarantee social distancing and agreeing that there wouldn’t be any food and beverage service when people weren’t sitting down.
There are opening and closing receptions and a dinner, he said, with masks required except when actively consuming food or drink. Otherwise, the conference has “restricted or eliminated almost all” other typical social events, and hotel bars are closed.
He emphasized Hawaii’s strict Safe Travels Hawai’i program. To travel to Hawaii, the state requires visitors to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test within 72 hours or they are required to isolate for 14 days. The organization had to get a variance from Maui County to host gatherings of more than 12 people, he said.
Every participant had to provide proof of a negative test from a state-approved vendor, Howle said, and had to register on a state website. The hotel scanned a bar code from that website when they checked in, he said. If an attendee was waiting on results, they had to provide proof they had been tested in the last 72 hours and were taken to a wing of the hotel reserved for quarantine until their test results returned.
They’re asking attendees to voluntarily get a COVID-19 test within 3-5 days of getting home, Howle said, and quarantine until they get their test results back. If someone tests positive, they’re asked to notify the group immediately.
This year’s conference panels are related to COVID-19, Howle said — vaccine development and safety, and what they recommend public officials consider that will allow the retail and hospitality industries to reopen.
According to the Independent Voter Project website, it “seeks to re-engage nonpartisan voters and promote nonpartisan election reform through initiatives, litigation, and voter education.”
“If you want to be critical of the optics of being in Hawaii, that’s a legitimate beef,” Howle said, but he said it’s a “no-nonsense conference,” and not a “big vacation.”
Howle said the conference is set up in such a way that legislators don’t have to use public funds to pay for anything. The organization offers to pay for legislators’ airfare and hotel expenses, he said, and about a third choose to pay out-of-pocket. In exchange, he asks them to participate for “every minute” of the conference and to tell him if they’re missing something so he can know why.
There are representatives from a variety of businesses this year, he said, and a public employee union he declined to identify.
With the pandemic raging at an unprecedented clip, did he consider going virtual, as so many other events have? Howle said that was an option, but that he thought it was important for public officials to go through Hawaii’s strict travel program. And, he said, the hotel was “on pins and needles” with so many events canceled.
”Hawaii deserves a lot of credit for developing a safe travel program, because it works,” Howle said. “And truthfully, we all feel safer being here, based on what we went through, than being home.”
In a typical year, Howle said the conference accounts for about 80% of the organizations operating budget. This year, with attendance cut by more than half, he expects to be stretched thin.
This story is developing and will be updated.