The impromptu event packed downtown Vancouver for hours last Friday
VANCOUVER — Anyone who ventured into downtown Vancouver on Friday evening unaware of what was happening likely found themselves trapped by the hundreds of vehicles slowly making their way along Main Street, horns honking and music blaring.
The event was sparked by a social media post that encouraged people to “park, cruise and help support local businesses.”
Despite urging proper social distancing, hundreds of people congregated on city sidewalks or in the parking lot of the Dairy Queen, most without masks on.
“We estimate there was maybe 1,000 or more vehicles and people there in some of the areas where some of our officers were out of their cars walking around,” said Vancouver Police Assistant Chief Jim Mori during Monday’s virtual meeting of the city council.
Mori says officers warned a few people, including a group of individuals hanging onto the side of a large military-style truck covered in banners espousing the First Amendment and urging the impeachment of Washington Gov. Jay Inslee over his “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order, which many view as unconstitutional.
“They just climbed into the back of the truck,” said Mori. “We kept passing out a lot of warnings, but we did not make any arrests.”
The governor’s order makes it a gross misdemeanor if anyone is cited for violating the stay-at-home order, but City Manager Eric Holmes noted that the county jail is facing reduced capacity due to the pandemic, so anyone who was cited wouldn’t have been arrested anyway.
“These emergency orders and the emergency proclamation from the governor on down are primarily public health-based directives,” said Holmes. “And while they do have the force of law, there is still some question about who is the primary enforcement agency.”
The cruise, which included enough vehicles to stretch up to a mile-and-a-half, was not connected with the city-sanctioned Cruise the Couve, a popular event now regularly held in July, but canceled this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle said the people behind those events took the time to notify businesses, arrange restrooms, and clean up trash afterwards.
“It’s unfortunate that none of that happened with this particular event,” the mayor said, noting that crews had to clean up a large amount of litter left behind on Friday evening.
In addition to that, Councilor Laurie Lebowsky said she had received a number of calls from downtown business owners who said they “were afraid of people that were coming into their businesses and demanding that they serve them.”
Most businesses downtown are closed, aside from some restaurants that provide to-go orders, but aren’t serving people inside the establishment.
Friday’s event, which was followed by another demonstration on Saturday outside of a dog grooming business that opened in defiance of the stay-at-home order, illustrates the growing frustration felt by many.
It’s a frustration Holmes said they are well aware of, and preparing to see more often.
“We anticipate as we get deeper into the spring and into early summer, and the weather changes, I think that this will continue to be a point of tension and friction,” said Holmes. “And we are going to, within the next week and before our next meeting, have a little more information about a strategy on the enforcement side of things.”
That will include meetings with Clark County officials and law enforcement agencies, said Holmes, to come up with a cohesive approach and an education campaign.
Councilor Ty Stober said he would prefer the city take a proactive approach to such events, potentially finding places where people could gather without being in such close proximity.
“How do you make sure your car doesn’t get broken into? Well you start by locking the car,” said Stober. “So what are the things that we can do beforehand, so we don’t even have to write a ticket?”
One suggestion brought forward by Lebowsky included potentially installing jersey barriers along Main Street, or other parts of the city to prevent vehicles from clogging up the area.
That received some pushback from Councilor Bart Hansen, who said he didn’t want to see “a solution that’s going to be worse than the problem, essentially.”
Instead, Hansen said he would like to have a conversation about ways the city could potentially work with people who want to organize events like this, to give guidance on where it could be done safely, and make sure police have more advance notice.
“Maybe being a little more innovative and thinking about what they can do instead of completely eliminating everything they can’t do,” said Hansen.
Holmes said conversations will be going on this week, and he anticipates being able to present some options to city council at their meeting on June 1.
“It’s not a unique-to-Vancouver thing,” said Holmes. “And so it’s really having a strategy and philosophy to deal with those things as we anticipate they’ll emerge in the coming weeks and months.”