Our Response to COVID-19

Wednesday, March 18, 2020
Updated: Monday, February 16, 2021

Since the start of the COVID-19 outbreak in Washington state, we have been monitoring federal, state, and local responses to our current public health crisis. In coordination with local allies, our national ACLU office, and ACLU affiliates across the country, we have taken actions to assure that responsive measures from the government follow public health experts' recommendations and protect the health, safety, and civil liberties of all. In particular, we have aggressively advocated for those whose health, civil rights, and civil liberties are at heightened risk during times of crisis, including those generally unhoused, and housed in detention centers, jails, and prisons. To date, we have taken the following actions to promote the health, safety, rights, and liberties of all Washingtonians:

Defending immigrant communities

  • Along with the Northwest Immigrant Rights Project (NWIRP) and Columbia Legal Services (CLS), we sent a letter to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, (ICE) and The GEO Group, the private prison corporation that runs the Northwest Detention Center in Tacoma (NWDC), demanding a scientifically-sound plan to protect detained immigrants from COVID-19. Shortly after, ICE responded with a wait-and-see approach that endangered the health and well-being of individuals housed in NWDC.
  • We, along with the ACLU’s national office and NWIRP, sued ICE and GEO to demand the release of immigrants who are at most risk of complications related to COVID-19.
  • We are educating the public about the federal government’s recent announcement that U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) will not apply the punitive “public charge” rule to people in immigration proceedings who seek testing and treatment for COVID-19, and the news that ICE will not take immigration enforcement actions at medical facilities.
  • More than 250,000 undocumented immigrants call Washington home. They are part of our families and community, make substantial contributions to our state, and deserve fair treatment and respect as human beings regardless of their immigration or employment status. However, undocumented immigrants and their families are completely excluded from the four relief packages Congress has passed, despite broad consensus that providing economic stability to all workers is essential to ending this public health crisis. Along with our allies, we sent a letter to Governor Inslee, Majority Leader Billig, and Speaker Jinkins urging them to act quickly to provide emergency economic assistance to undocumented Washingtonians as well as create a permanent system that will provide wage replacement protection to workers who lose their jobs and are excluded from the current unemployment insurance system, including undocumented immigrants.

Advocating for individuals dealing with homelessness and the housing crisis

  • We joined community partners in a letter asking Gov. Inslee and state officials to provide public health and housing assistance that helps those without shelter to get housing, practice social distancing, and have access to medical care and sanitation supplies. We have also asked for measures that keep people housed, like financial assistance to those in danger of losing their homes, as well as measures that mitigate harm to those living outside, such as redirecting efforts to providing outreach, services, and care, rather than displacing unhoused people.
  • Along with our allies, we joined a letter to Governor Jay Inslee requesting an extension and expansion of the eviction moratorium to ensure people do not lose housing and are not buried in debt once the crisis passes. The request includes but is not limited to: a prohibition on fees, an extension of the moratorium to fixed-term leases, a ban on eviction for tenants who contract COVID19, and a temporary freeze on rent increases. The letter also urges the state to do more to address the looming foreclosure crisis to help keep people in their homes.

Protecting the health of individuals incarcerated and working in Washington’s jails and prisons      

  • Together with Columbia Legal Services and 12 other allies, we sent a letter to Gov. Inslee and the Washington Department of Corrections advocating for measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 through state prisons. These measures included releasing aging and medically compromised people, and those who are within six months of their release date, and implementing non-punitive social distancing for those who remain in custody. We also called for increased access to medical care and sanitation supplies and free remote visitation options.
  • We partnered with Disability Rights Washington to issue an action alert urging the Governor to use the full extent of his executive powers, including the power of clemency, to ensure the release of medically vulnerable people and others who can be released now.
  • Together with allies in Spokane, we sent a letter to Spokane City and County urging their courts to release those awaiting trial for all but the most violent offenses, a measure that would promote both public safety and public health by enabling social distancing and reducing exposure to COVID-19 in custody.
  • With the help of our allies, we also sent a letter to King County and Seattle government, law enforcement and judicial leaders pushing them to take immediate steps to protect the health of individuals in or facing the possibility of entering King County Jail. We call for increased use of alternatives to pre-trial incarceration and the release of individuals who cannot afford bail, those who are at high risk of medical complications, and those who have nearly completed their sentence. Recently, King County responded with this letter stating that many of our recommendations are being put into action. The number of people in King County jails has been reduced by over 600 individuals with the intent of further decreasing the total population until each person in custody is provided a single cell. We will continue pushing for additional releases, alternatives to incarceration and proper precautions to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
  • The Fred T. Korematsu Center for Law and Equality took the lead, and ACLU-WA joined along with the Public Defender Association and the Washington Innocence Project, in submitting an AMICUS brief to the Washington State Supreme Court on behalf of petitioners.  The brief urged the court to order the governor and state officials to take immediate action to protect the health and safety of incarcerated people in Washington prisons. The coronavirus pandemic has rendered time exceedingly short and created dire threats to prisoners, staff, and the community. The brief states that the only effective remedy, supported by public health experts, is to release enough of the particularly vulnerable inmates who can be safely released, to allow social distancing and to reduce the threat of serious illness or death caused by the pandemic.
  • The ACLU of Washington has been tracking jail populations since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Responses to COVID-19 have taught us many lessons. They have shown what is possible and achieved many of the reforms we have been working toward for years. Thousands of people were released to the community from Washington jails in a few weeks. It should not take a public health crisis to expose the fact that Washington jails are full of people who should be released pretrial and that immediate steps can be taken to end mass incarceration.

Protecting Washington's Youth

  • We joined with Team Child and other allies to send letters to Washington’s Department of Children and Family Service’s Juvenile Rehabilitation Administration and Juvenile Court Administrators and Judges calling for the release of the youth under their jurisdiction, starting with those most vulnerable to COVID-19 and those within 6 months of their release date. We also urged these facilities to provide health care and access to sanitation supplies necessary to prevent and properly treat infection.
  • We joined with our allies in sending a letter to Governor Jay Inslee and Secretary Ross Hunter of the Washington State Department of Children, Youth and Families (DCYF) to address concerns regarding the Department’s stated intent to restrict and eliminate in-person visitation between parents and their children in temporary out-of-home placements. The letter acknowledges that we are in a time of crisis, and emphasizes the especially important need to maintain consistent, quality parent-child bonding in such times, in an effort to minimize trauma for the children in DCYF’s care. Governor Jay Inslee responded to our letter with proclamation 20-33, recognizing the importance of parent-child contact during this crisis and encouraging virtual contact whenever possible. In response to this proclamation, along with our allies, we sent another letter asking for further clarification regarding in-person parental visitation. Each family and each child is unique. It should be up to the parties, if they agree (or up to the court if parties disagree), to determine if safe, in-person visitation is still possible.
  • Together with our allies, we sent a letter to Governor Inslee, Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal and the Director of Health Care Authority Susan Birch, urging them to proactively ensure students with disabilities are not denied access to essential services that they have been accessing at school. Without this access, these students may have no available alternative resources for these critical services and may experience significant harm if they are denied access to the treatments that they need to grow into healthy adults.
  • Additionally, we signed onto a letter sent by our allies to Chief Justice Stephens and Members of the Washington State Supreme Court urging them to take immediate measures to decrease the imminent risk of COVID-19 contamination juveniles are facing in Washington's criminal justice system. Because of this grave risk, which falls disproportionately on youth of color in the juvenile legal system and their families, we provided the Supreme Court with four ways to significantly decrease the number of incarcerated youth in juvenile detention or rehabilitation centers in the state.
  • Educators and families are hard at work finding new ways to provide students with educational opportunities while also ensuring basic health and safety needs are met. Along with local and national allies, we joined a letter urging congress to not eliminate protections under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) and the Rehabilitation Act of 1973. The civil rights of students with disabilities, who already face disproportionate impacts from the disruptions of COVID-19, rely on protections provided by federal education law and enforcement of those protections should be strengthened, not weakened during a time of crisis.
  • We sent a letter to Governor Inslee calling on his office to swiftly remedy the unsafe and inequitable manner in which remote learning is being provided to students during this crisis. In this letter, we call for the government to meet its obligation to ensure that all students have equal access to remote learning technologies and make sure that strong privacy protections are in place so that students do not need to choose between privacy and their education. Thus far, the burden of failures to provide equitable and safe access to remote learning tools has fallen unequally on students who have traditionally struggled to obtain equal access to quality education, including students from low-income families, students of color, students with disabilities and students who lack permanent housing.
  • ACLU-WA and its allies sent a letter to the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction’s (OSPI) calling on them to implement a series of steps that will most equitably ensure ongoing learning for all students. These steps include developing and implementing a transparent plan that specifically addresses the reduction of educational inequities for marginalized students, providing robust technical assistance to families and educators, and identifying students at risk of regression or destabilization in order to offer them enhanced support. Click here to see the summarized version of our letter.

Defending the health and rights of those in the criminal legal system

  • Together with our public defender allies, we sent a letter to the Washington Supreme Court along with a proposed order that would protect people who are not in custody from having to come to court and expose themselves to potential health risks while prioritizing the pre-trial hearings of those in custody awaiting trial. We continue to advocate for alternatives to pre-trial incarceration as a way to protect due process and civil liberties while also protecting people from the risks of exposure to COVID-19 in custody.
  • Working with the King County Department of Public Defense we asked King County Superior Court to suspend out-of-custody hearings during the public health crisis to protect those with upcoming court dates from potential exposure to the virus.
  • We joined a letter, along with other members of the national Free to Drive coalition, urging the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators to ask its U.S.-based member agencies, such as the Washington Department of Licensing, to immediately stop suspending, and refusing to renew, driver’s licenses for reasons other than unsafe driving, and to reinstate licenses currently suspended for reasons other than unsafe driving. Driver’s license suspensions and non-renewals should be used for the limited purpose of ensuring safe roads, and not for reasons such as failure to pay fines and fees, or failure to appear in court. With increasingly limited access to public transportation, and the current health risks of using public transportation, it is more critical than ever that people are able to drive themselves and their dependents to work, hospitals, pharmacies, and grocery stores, regardless of their income.

Protecting our privacy

  • We sent a letter to Governor Inslee, calling on him to implement fifteen basic principles to ensure that any implementation of technologically assisted contact tracing (TACT) measures protect both public health as well as civil liberties. Our recommendations clarify that the tool must be voluntary at every step and that the tool not replace non-technological public health measures such as testing, counseling, research and treatment. Additionally, we recommend that any measures taken be non-discriminatory or used for punitive measures such as criminal prosecution. While adopting a technology-assisted contact-tracing tool may be useful in reopening Washington’s economy, we urged the Governor to consider the risks that poorly designed systems pose to both public health and our civil liberties.
  • We sent Governor Inslee recommendations to ensure that any data collection requirements issued for businesses to reopen protect the privacy rights and civil liberties of all Washingtonians. Any requirements should ensure that individuals can decline to provide their information, must not mandate showing identification, and must prohibit the use of any information collected for uses other than facilitating contact tracing efforts to stem the spread of COVID-19. While we acknowledged that customer logging may be a useful measure to protect public health in the process of reopening Washington’s economy, we also emphasized the importance of considering the risks to both public health and civil liberties posed by unclear and overbroad data collection policies.

Monitoring the government’s response

  • In mid-April, together with our allies, we sent a letter to Governor Inslee and Secretary Weisman of the Washington State Department of Health to request that Washington join other states in collecting and producing  COVID-19 demographic data broken down by race/ethnicity, and to urge the equitable distribution of testing and personal protective equipment and ventilators. We are pleased that Washington state has now begun to report race/ethnicity demographic data of COVID-19 cases and deaths.  However more must be done. In implementing a plan for the distribution of health care resources, it is essential that the Governor and the Department of Health recognize and respond to the current inequities that exist in our state.
  • On May 15, we sent a letter to Governor Inslee and the Department of Health calling on them to do more to address the structural and systemic barriers that result in people of color experiencing a disproportionate number of COVID-19 cases. COVID-19 has exacerbated and made crystal clear the disparities that have long existed in our state. To equitably address this pandemic and keep every community safe, the voices of historically marginalized communities must be centered and at the table. We called on the Governor and Department of Health to provide a robust and community-focused response to COVID-19, including: (1) collecting and releasing COVID-19 data disaggregated by occupation; (2) ensuring adequate protections and support for all essential workers; and (3) developing an action plan to address existing disparities that result in increased vulnerability to COVID-19.
  • We are continually monitoring the actions of federal, state, and local government to assure that any response to this public health crisis is founded in science, is the least-restrictive option in regard to civil liberties, and is frequently revisited to assure that they last only as long as necessary for the public good.

We will keep this page updated as developments continue to keep you informed of the various ways in which we are advocating for the health and liberty of everyone in Washington state.