Spiffy’s Becomes Lightning Rod for Protest of State’s COVID-19 Restrictions

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The parking lot of Spiffy’s in Napavine was full Wednesday night — partly with customers, and partly with residents waiting for Washington State Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) officers to return to the restaurant, which reopened indoor dining Monday, flouting statewide orders meant to curb the spread of COVID-19. By Thursday morning, the crowd had grown larger and included some individuals in tactical gear toting semi-automatic rifles. 

According to Facebook posts and owner Rod Samuelson, L&I staff arrived at the restaurant Wednesday afternoon, telling staffers to close up shop, and that they would return in two hours. Samuelson has been vocal about his reopening of the restaurant in defiance of state COVID-19 orders. In an interview this week, he said he had a “plan b” ready for when L&I decided to come and address the restaurant’s violations.

“Our manager made a real loud statement in the restaurant and said ‘ladies and gentlemen, L&I is here, and they want us to close,’” Samuelson said. He described customers standing up and approaching the L&I personnel, who eventually left. “I said ‘they’re not gonna be back. Not today.’”

Even so, a “call to action” soon spread through social media, one asking for “supporters to film and keep the peace” when L&I returned. Kelli Stewart said she brought 20 people from Clark County, making an hour and a half drive. Stewart got a “call to action” through the organization she works with, People’s Rights — a new group headed by anti-government activist Ammon Bundy, who famously led a 2016 armed occupation and standoff with the federal government in Oregon.

Stewart said the plan now is to figure out which L&I employee is “targeting” Spiffy’s, to find his home, and to protest outside. It’s a tactic People’s Rights has employed before. Stewart noted that the organization also supports Mossyrock, which recently passed an ordinance stating the city “will not recognize” Gov. Jay Inslee’s newest round of COVID-19 restrictions — an ordinance local and state officials say holds no water and does not supersede state mandates.

“We’ll stand behind the city 100 percent,” she said. “It should always be up to a local jurisdiction.”

One protester, who would not give their name, expressed frustration that stores like Walmart are still open, but locally-owned restaurants are being restricted. 

“We don’t believe the lie anymore,” they told The Chronicle. “The government doesn’t tell us what to do, they work for us.”

Beth Corder came with her boyfriend, who lives just down the road from Spiffy’s, to wave American flags by the road in front of the restaurant. She said she raised her kids on Spiffy’s food, and would hate to see it go under.

According to Lewis County Sheriff Rob Snaza, L&I requested assistance on their way out of the situation, but the sheriff’s office hasn’t “made a determination” as to whether they will accompany L&I officers should they return. It will depend on the circumstances, Snaza said. 

This “breaks with precedent,” said Mike Faulk, a spokesperson for the governor’s office, noting that it’s standard practice for L&I to request law enforcement to act as “civil standby” when carrying out enforcement actions. 

Thursday morning, as more armed protesters gathered in the parking lot, Washington State Patrol spokesperson Chris Loftis confirmed that there were no plans to deploy the state patrol, despite rumors spread through social media that they would be visiting Spiffy’s. 

On the Dori Monson Show on KIRO Radio Thursday afternoon, Samuelson said he was overwhelmed by the show of support. He also told Monson that he asked one individual to put his weapon away. 

“It’s a peaceful thing and I don’t want anyone to lose their temper and get hurt,” he told Monson.

Later, on Thursday, a car sped through the parking lot, prompting one man to pull his weapon, and others to call law enforcement. The Sheriff’s Office responded, and nobody was injured. Earlier in the morning, armed protesters confronted Chronicle staff and told them to leave. They followed a photographer to his car and surrounded him before he drove off the property. 

“It’s unfortunate,” Faulk said. “You know, I just encourage people to look at the reason behind the health guidance.”

Currently, Lewis County — and all other counties across the state — is “in the red,” far above the high-risk threshold of 75 cases per 100,000 in the last two weeks. As of Friday morning, Lewis County was at 330.9, and 8.6 percent of COVID-19 tests are coming back positive. 

According to L&I Spokesperson Tim Church, out of the 14-15,000 complaints the agency has received regarding COVID-19 regulation violations statewide, only about 35 businesses have been cited. 

“Most businesses are stepping up and doing the right thing,” he said. When asked if it’s abnormal for the Sheriff’s Office to not offer standby assistance, Church remarked “nothing is normal in today’s world.”

An L&I investigation into Spiffy’s is ongoing, and will take more than a few days. Investigations can continue regardless of a business’s cooperation, Church said, although the level of cooperation a business offers often plays a role in whether citations or fines are issued. 

By Friday morning, the crowd had dispersed save for a few individuals still posted in Spiffy’s parking lot. 

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