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caption: King County Executive Dow Constantine speaks at a media briefing on the region's COVID-19 outbreak, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
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King County Executive Dow Constantine speaks at a media briefing on the region's COVID-19 outbreak, Wednesday, March 4, 2020.
Credit: Public Health Seattle-King County

King County Executive on reopening businesses and the Sheriff's Office

King County Executive Dow Constantine joined us for our weekly Tuesday conversation.

This is an edited transcript of the conversation between Ross Reynolds and King County Executive Dow Constantine on Tuesday, June 23, 2020.

It's very early in the [Governor's Safe Start Recovery Plan] reopening Phase 2, but what are you hearing? What are the early reports? What's your sense of how it's going?

Well, I think the results are mixed. Right now we are holding at our targets -- current cases, 24, which is slightly below the target. The reproductive number -- the so-called "R not" is right on 1.0 -- which is the target. Hospital occupancy is really reasonable right now. We're hitting those targets, but the daily numbers keep bouncing around. Yesterday, we had 39, which is our goal. Preliminary numbers for today, over 100. So it's been bouncing up and down, it's hard to tell still where that's coming from, what's causing that volatility.

And I'm concerned that as more and more activities are allowed, people are gonna let down their guard. So we're going to be pushing very hard to get folks to really redouble their efforts to prevent infection even as they engage in more activities.

You're looking at a number of different health metrics: the increase in diagnoses, but also hospitalizations and deaths, which, as I understand have stayed low. How do you balance those mixed signals when they're going up and down on a daily basis and maybe going in opposite directions, when it comes to deciding to reopen the economy? Or maybe even close it back down because things aren't going well?

Clearly we want to keep an eye on multiple indicators, because we want to make sure that we're not reacting just to one anomaly. I mean, none of these creates a picture of what's going on, R not number maybe being the best, but delayed by several weeks from the real situation on the streets.

We are going to be working to increase people's compliance with the directive to wear masks, to observe the prescribed distances and restaurants and avoid gatherings, and we're going to be continuing to monitor the items on our dashboard to make sure we don't see a sustained trend in the wrong direction.

And, you know, somewhat to my surprise, even with so much more activity, we have not yet seen a sustained trend toward more infections. So, not so much fingers crossed, as simply increased vigilance, and a commitment to make sure that we're going in one direction out of this lockdown and not having to bounce back into it.

You mentioned moves to increase compliance with mask wearing and some people are very uptight about this. They see people going around without masks, they go, why isn't someone giving them a ticket or something like that? What do you mean when you say you're going to take moves to increase compliance to get people to wear masks?

I'm very uptight about it. The fact is that people see folks wandering around outdoors going in a walk with the dog or the family without a mask. They shouldn't sweat that, that is fine, that is fully compliant, consistent with the advice that's being given. It's when people are inside a restaurant or a coffee shop, when people are in a contained area with a lot of people, that they need to be wearing a mask, like they're at the hardware store, for example.

And we are doing a number of things. County has ordered and has taken delivery of some 25 million masks that are being distributed through a number of community based organizations, chambers of commerce, help from religious organizations and others. And those will be available through businesses.

We are also continuing the conversation about making mask use mandatory and I can tell you that we very much want that to be statewide. People come and go from King County every single day. So as it has been made mandatory in Yakima County, we're very optimistic that mask use will be mandatory statewide very soon.

The governor has a press conference at 3pm today, do you have any advance notice of whether he might announce mask wearing is mandatory in the state, which you say would allow you to go ahead in King County? (Ed. note: Governor Inslee has announced a statewide face coverings mandate.)

This is a conversation that we and our public health professionals been having with the state health department for some time now. I don't know what the governor is going to announce at his press conference today, obviously he has very regular press conferences about the subject. But if there's not a statewide order, we will certainly be moving to a county order, probably by the end of the week.

I'm told by Jeff Duchin, our public health officer, that he now believes that on balance, it would increase compliance and give business owners, retail, and restaurant owners in particular, the opportunity to really tell people you know, I'm sorry, but it's law, and you do need to have a mask to come in here. We've all seen firsthand places where folks are just ignoring the advice and although they may think they are putting themselves at risk, what they're doing is putting others at risk and we can't really allow that.

What does it really mean to go to a mandatory "wear a mask" order? Does that mean someone could be fined or someone could be punished for not doing it?

Yeah, I mean, in theory, it means that. I think what it means is that the business has the ability to say you're putting our livelihood in jeopardy, you're putting our ability to continue to do business in jeopardy. So please, just don a mask. And the good news is that we are acquiring millions and millions of masks. So no one should be able to say they can't find one.

So two steps, more masks, and you're giving a little bit more heft to business owners, telling people you've got to wear a mask because now it's mandatory.

That's right.

Kerri in North Seattle: Could he speak to what kind of conversations are happening with the sheriff in light of everything that's happening nationally. And locally. We hear quite a bit from Chief Best but have not heard from the sheriff. And I'm curious what kind of conversations are being had about implementing more anti racist policies and points of view in policing in the sheriff's office.

Yes. I'm in conversations with the sheriff. The relationship's very different within King County, with a separately elected sheriff. But the sheriff has been working throughout her term to really try to transform the way policing is done in King County and she asked Campaign Zero to audit King County Sheriff Office's policies against the "8 Can't Wait" list, which I think you may be familiar with. It's a number of reforms that are being requested, demanded of police agencies across the state.

Campaign Zero determined that six of the eight were already contained in the existing department policy and the sheriff's office agreed that although they comply with seven and eight, they needed to clarify those points, and they worked with the union and within five days, succeeded in doing that. I'm very pleased that Sheriff [Mitzi] Johanknecht has taken this seriously, not just in the last few weeks, but throughout her time in office.

And we're, of course working on a much broader scale on the effort to really transform public safety, community safety, around public health and human services model. We're not asking the police to solve every societal problem, but rather, bringing people with the expertise and resources who can come to communities and help out.

We've heard from some King County employees that they've been told they will not be returning to their offices in downtown Seattle. What's the situation with that return? And are you going to keep all your office buildings open?

Well, this has been a fascinating sort of byproduct of the stay at home order in the COVID pandemic. What we learned is that not only do a lot of employees prefer to work from home, but in fact, objectively from a management point of view,we've seen increased productivity and engagement from people who are working remotely. It is a strange phenomenon. It is counterintuitive, but it is happening. And our Department of Natural Resources and Parks has some 800 employees who've been telecommuting. And the director Christie True has presented us with a proposal, which I've accepted, that they make that situation permanent and have Parks and Natural Resources employees at home, or at our facilities throughout the county, where they can be closer to real work we're doing on the field.

I'm excited about this. It allows us to redeploy people within the the office buildings that we do have, and I'm not ready to make any announcements, but it definitely presents the opportunity for us to reduce costs and reduce our carbon footprint as well, which is one of our main goals within our workforce in King County.

Are you considering closing all, or part, of some of those buildings?

I'm definitely considering the option of closing parts of buildings or entire buildings and that is true across the board. This has opened up a lot of possibilities and one of the wrinkles, one of the issues we need to struggle with is the inequities: the fact that higher paid, employees are more able to stay home, lower paid frontline employees cannot -- they're feeling less engaged as their counterparts who stay home are somehow feeling more engaged. It is going to require a lot of work on our part through human resources and we're now digging into research from across the country about telecommuting and the ways we can make this work better for all our employees and the public we serve.

Jessica in Lake Forest Park: I'm calling to find out, with so many resources being focused on coronavirus, which public health measures are not being monitored? Is water quality for our beaches and drinking water being monitored?

Yes, all the environmental health and public health work that we were doing previously is continuing. We did receive additional funding from the federal government to be able to do the specifically Covid-related work and that has allowed us to increase capacity. But it is a fact that even before this we did not have enough to really do all the work that we would want to be doing in water quality. And King County is a leader in that and we have a research vessel dedicated to water quality sampling in support of our salmon recovery work, and water quality work generally. But we have continued and I have talked with our cabinet about this this week, continued all the difficult work, the long-term work that we have always carried on, even as we're taking on sort of multiple crises and challenges right now -- economic collapse, COVID, and now the enormous opportunity to create a new era of equity and social justice in this region, and in this nation.

This afternoon, the King County Council votes on an additional $81 million for spending in the crisis. And that got me wondering, what is the state of the county's budget? You are getting some federal help, but unlike the federal government, you can't print money. What's your balance sheet look like?

It is not good. The general fund is facing a multi-hundreds of millions of dollars shortfall over the next two years. In the short term, the direct costs, as I mentioned, much of the direct costs are covered by federal funds. But the loss of revenue is not covered. And that is the large part of the equation. The downturn in the economy, the reliance on the sales tax is going to hurt. And we're going to need the legislature and Congress to help us figure out how we can continue to provide the services people need.

Metro transit, may be even worse, with dramatic declines in their revenue, since they're so heavily dependent on the sales tax. We're looking at a $600 million plus deficit over the next two years on top of more than $280 million this year alone.

Ouch. You might get some state funding, you might get some federal funding, but are you just gonna wait for that? In lieu of that is there anything you can do at the county level to deal with this yawning deficit coming your way?

Clearly we have to deliver a balanced budget so we're clearly planning for cuts. We're also trying to figure out how we can do things much differently. And I've given my cabinet the charge to innovate like you've never innovated before. One example, the Natural Resources and Parks proposal about having 800 employees telework.

But the fact is legislature, in addition to providing funds, needs to provide a reformed state tax system that is not so volatile, and that has each of us contributing as we are able, rather than falling most heavily on those who are least able to pay.

You're looking at health parameters when it comes to reopening. You're also looking at the long-term sustainability of restrictions on economic activity, which of course directly ties into the budget issue. When people aren't doing economic activity, your tax revenues go down. You can't do what King County wants to do. But I'm kind of wondering how you're measuring that economic activity part of the equation.

That is one of the struggles here. If this was just about the virus, and the the epidemic, it would be one thing. But we have to take into account the fact that people are suffering, their health is suffering, and economic security is suffering by being out of work, and our overall economy is struggling. So we have to figure out how to have that economy come back to life while we keep a lid on the infections. And I think we've been largely successful, though it's, you know, terribly imprecise, and none of us have sailed these waters before.

We are lucky in this region to have some pretty big companies that are pretty resilient in this kind of situation, that have a global reach and employ a lot of people and push a lot of money into the economy, but there's still a large percentage of the population whose jobs went away, whose places were closed, and we need to help them get through this and then get back on their feet and make sure that they are able to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.

Dow, yes or no question. There are some who would like to put a heavier tax on big businesses, i.e. Amazon, in order to help relieve the economic crisis at the government level. Would you support that?

Can't do that yes/no. I pushed legislation to allow us to do that countywide in last session. It did not pass. I don't support the Seattle-only very high tax. I think that would be counterproductive. And I just referred to the importance of us having some of these major employers in our region to buoy our economy during tough times.

Rebecca on Capitol Hill: I was just hearing about some of the main offices getting closed down due to more employees working remotely and the space no longer being necessary for them to be using which I think I would like to consider using for the community-led initiatives that are being explored at CHOP, as well as potential space for homeless in the city, as long as that space is going to be opened up and not being used.

This economic situation presents lots of possibilities. One of the things we've been doing is renting entire hotels where we're able to move people out of shelters and into their own rooms where they're less likely to become infected and in fact, reduces behavioral health challenges, 911 calls, etc.

The downtown real estate can probably best be used over the long term by converting it into housing. Not the existing buildings, but rather this very precious, small amount of land. Some of these buildings are on, including some of the county buildings, are on land that could support thousands upon thousands of housing units. And that ultimately is what we need. We need more permanent affordable housing, we need more permanent, supportive housing. One of the things we've learned in this is that the old shelter model does not work very well and that it tends to keep people stuck in their situation for a long time. We need to get them into housing and get them moving forward with their lives. And I'm excited about the possibilities that these changes in the real estate market are providing, and the changes in the way people work and I'm looking forward to really leveraging them.

The King County Sheriff's Office has released data online about its use of force. There's a racial breakdown of uses of force. This could be hitting someone, using a taser, firing a gun. It found that 50% of people King County used force against were white. About 59% of residents are white but 29% of people subjected to use of force by King County were Black but less than 7% of King County residents are Black. What do you make of that?

It's a little hard to to say for sure, because of course, the sheriff's office jurisdiction is not representative the county as a whole. It's unincorporated, and it's some contract cities, and it's kind of here and there.

The fact is that policing falls disproportionately on people of color and specifically Black, Latino and Native American residents and that is core to the challenge we have to deal with, with not just law enforcement, the entire criminal legal system. And you know, could expand that to the education system, the health system, the economic system. That is something that has to be taken on very consciously. This is not just about, you know, individual bad actors. This is about a system that leaves open every day, every encounter, the possibility that deep seated biases are going to evidence themselves in harm to individuals because of their race. And that is something we just all have to first accept, and second root out and fix.

And I'm really proud of the sheriff for being willing to take that on. And I think the county council is ready to work with the entire justice system to see it through.

Could you give us an example of what you, as the King County Executive, can do? It is, of course, a much larger concern than the sheriff's department or King County. But give us one example of what you're doing.

I think the exciting opportunities opened up here and we've had some efforts in this over the years, is to really bring in more public health interventions and human service supports, to go into communities and deal with challenges that we're currently asking the police to deal with. That is the way in which we can begin to really get to the root of problems that either individuals or neighborhoods are having and uproot those and bring some healing, rather than having the police go in with the very limited and often deadly tools that they're given, and put them into a really volatile situation.

And I'm looking forward, we're already working with my budget staff to identify how even in these bad times, we can free up the funds to be able to make that shift toward a more community based policing model, particularly in the urban unincorporated areas of King County like White Center and Skyway. And I think that that is a model that is going to be employed in many jurisdictions across the country in the next few years as they work on their next round of budgets. So I'm excited about it. I think this community is well positioned to be able to take advantage of the opportunity for change and we're going to do everything we can [unintelligible].

Nancy in West Seattle: I'm a resident West Seattle and I'm concerned about where on the priority list of actions and finances, West Seattle bridge, or some replacement for the bridge is?

City of Seattle bridge, they're taking the lead. We're all on board to help. And it's going to require unquestionably, significant federal funds and probably some help from the state as well as combined local funds. We know that the federal government, hopefully under President [Joe] Biden, is going to be investing in a capital program to get America back on its feet. And this is going to have to be one of the major asks, from Puget Sound and the state of Washington.