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Mayor Jenny Durkan on masks, Ballard Commons, and paying rent

caption: Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan speaks to a large crowd during the 'Impeach and Remove Rally' on Tuesday, December 17, 2019, in front of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in Seattle.
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Seattle mayor Jenny Durkan speaks to a large crowd during the 'Impeach and Remove Rally' on Tuesday, December 17, 2019, in front of the Henry M. Jackson Federal Building in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan joins us for our weekly check-in.

This is an edited and abbreviated transcript of Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan's conversatoin with Bill Radke on May 7, 2020.

I guess the most important topic, based on what has been discovered in Whatcom County -- there's a big push to whatever the Seattle hockey team was gonna be called, to make it be called the Murder Hornets. Can we sign you on?

I mean how unlucky can be? COVID? West Seattle bridge? Murder hornets?

Let's talk about statewide restrictions being relaxed in the governor's four phases and all of that. What about in the city of Seattle? What will it take for the city of Seattle to reopen?

I think the governor is exactly on the right path, and has been working really hard with myself, [King County] Executive [Dow] Constantine, as well as the mayors and county executives in Pierce County, Snohomish County and throughout the rest of the state. We've got to do this in phases. And we've got to make sure that as we open up, we give ourselves the ability to see what's happening with this virus.

Two numbers to take away for your listeners today, is that the recent models show that probably more than 95% of the people living in the Seattle and King County area, have not even been exposed to the virus. So that means when we start opening things up, more people can be susceptible and we know the virus will be transmitted. So we've got to keep a really careful eye on, is it growing? And how is it growing?

And that's why the second number is, we've got to have more tests. And we're going to be talking with the governor, the county executive, to really have a goal of daily tests in Seattle, in the region. And we are nowhere near that goal right now. So before we can open up, we've got to give ourselves the ability to know what happens when we do that, because the last thing anybody wants, is to open up, start coming back together again, and have to shut down again.

What is the update on tests? Can anybody get a test? Do you have to have mild symptoms? Asymptomatic? Who do you have to be, what category?

The update on tests is we still do not have a sufficient amount in Seattle, King County or Washington state. And so the tests, under public health guidance, are going to be given to those people who are at most risk, so that they can make sure they can get people the adequate treatment and isolate them so they don't spread the virus. So they're focusing their testing capability on vulnerable populations, like our people experiencing homelessness, or in our adult family homes, or senior centers. And then they're also of course using them at the hospital. So if someone presents with the symptoms of the virus, they can test them.

We've been trying to stand up more testing capability. The University of Washington set up a drive through, or walk-up drive site, in South Seattle at the Atlantic Street boat ramps so that part of our community who has been over impacted by the virus and yet under resourced by health care, that we start getting them not just the test they need, but the help they need. And real kudos to the University of Washington and King County Public Health, for making that a reality. And we want to see more of that happen in Seattle.

Will you be ordering any restrictions like, you can open, but with staggered shifts? Or tests for everyone? Or temperature checks in the lobby? Or mandatory masks?

All of those things are on the table and under discussion both with Seattle King County Public Health and with the State Department of Health. I think it's really helpful to have consistent standards as much as we can.

I was really fortunate, today I went out to the job site for the new arena, and was able to see how their construction crews were putting into place their safety standards, which includes everyone getting their temperature checked, everyone wearing a mask, social distancing, gloves. And it's going to vary industry by industry.

nd King County Public Health and the Department of Health has started to develop what those guidelines will be, and we're working with businesses and sectors to say, here's what you have to do to stay safe broadly. Tell us how it's going to work in your workplace so that we can make sure that when we're ready to reopen, we can reopen businesses and sectors gradually in Seattle.

William in SoDo: My question is about the possibility of opening up bars to serve drinks to-go, so people can drink outside for the summer.

The State Liquor Control Board did just authorize to-go cocktails if people also order food from a takeout restaurant or small business. And the cocktail has to be placed in the trunk of the car or somewhere out of reach of the driver. We heard from a lot of small businesses. We saw the kits that people were taking home, but a lot of bars and restaurants had already invested heavily into their liquor supply and those didn't qualify. So yesterday, the Liquor Control Board did say that you could get takeaway cocktails with those restrictions. We obviously don't want people driving under the influence or drinking while they're driving. But I think that we're going to see how this goes. And I know a lot of people welcomed it.

Michelle in Beacon Hill: I'm wondering what the update is on masks and face coverings as far as being required. We're seeing a lot of different cities and states requiring those. So what's our situation?

We've been looking at that issue now and working with Seattle King County Public Health and the state to try to stay in alignment. But we've also heard from workers and customers that opened essential businesses. And I think that you will see some guidance if not tomorrow [Friday], early next week on some mandatory face coverings in certain retail establishments, which seems to be not only the CDC guidance, but also what is becoming the accepted practice, since so many people are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, and it's yet another step we can do to slow the transmission of this virus.

Did I hear you say that in the next day or so, the city is going to require masks in, let's say, essential retail like pharmacies and grocery stores, etc.?

I think that's a strong possibility. We really want to make sure that we're aligned with Seattle King County Public Health and the Department of Health and different cities have obviously different realities, both with urban density and the types of businesses that are open. So in the city of Seattle, I think you will see that tomorrow or Monday. We're working still with stakeholders. We want to make sure we do this in a really thoughtful way, that we highlight what the health reasons for doing this are and give people the strong guidance that they need.

Let's talk about this encampment in the Ballard Commons area that was cleared this week by members of Seattle's navigation team. Didn't you put a temporary ban on so called sweeps during the crisis?

At the very advent of this, we made the decision, which we think was the right one, to really focus our efforts on trying to bring people who are experiencing homelessness inside, to do outreach and education, to provide hygiene services. The city of Seattle has spent a significant amount of money, opening up new shelter capacity and using that capacity for people who are already in shelters but to try to provide social distancing. We've also stood up the hygiene centers and opened up bathrooms in libraries. We at the very outset said that if there were any encampments that did present public health or safety risks, we would assess those on a case by case effort.

The Ballard Commons did present that kind of health and public safety concern on an ongoing basis. I will say, the navigation team had done just tremendous work. And they've been doing tremendous work for the last two months. They literally are are only consistent outreach to people experiencing homelessness. They are there every day in the communities, trying to give them information, trying to bring them inside the shelter, and trying to do outreach. So the Ballard Commons presented a combination of issues that required us to act.

One, we had the fact that in this time of COVID, we know that it's not safe for people to be gathered together and not to be socially distant. We also know that hygiene is critically important, and that we tried to provide that. We also know that unfortunately, the Ballard Commons was the site for a Hepatitis outbreak as well. Both of those presenting threats not just to the people living in the encampments themselves, but to the community at large.

So we worked over a 30 day period with people at the Ballard Commons to offer every single person shelter, to try to manage to see if we could tackle some of those hygiene issues. Unfortunately, that did not come about, and so we were faced with an ongoing, unsafe and unsanitary conditions, both because of the Hepatitis A and the potential for Covid. It is one block from two different senior centers, both of which have people who are very high, vulnerable risk. Also, right next to an essential business, one of the only grocery stores. And so we went, offered everybody the chance to come inside, many did accept, some didn't. But we felt that very necessary to improve the hygiene and public safety in that neighborhood.

The CDC says, as you know, that clearing encampments can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread. And city councilor Dan Strauss, who represents Ballard says, "this means every week we push people from one place to another without addressing their underlying issues." And "This is not in line with my values." How do you want to respond?

Our guidance never said that we would not move any person camping anywhere, we said that we would look and if there was an extreme health, public health or safety risk, that we would move. And we used examples like the outbreak of disease, or if there was a potential for a fire, things like that, that we had to really make sure that in the time of Covid, we were making sure that we were keeping people in as safe a position as possible.

And the number one thing I want to emphasize is that every single person at the Ballard Commons was offered the opportunity to come inside. We can't force people to come inside, but we did offer people the ability, and many people did accept and were able to get enhanced shelter. So they not only got a safer place to be, but they got the services that they needed.

Second, the CDC guidance itself had us focus on what is the exact health risk at the time. And there the importance was, did you offer someone a better alternative than just moving them? Which we did. Every person was offered the opportunity to get to a safer place. We have to make sure that not only for the people who are in these encampments, that we try to maintain and keep our eye on what is the public health risk, but also what is the public health risk in and around the encampment.

The same day that we issued our guidance on what we were doing in Ballard and why, the local King County Public Health issued their report on the Hepatitis outbreak, and noted that it was it was primarily centered in the homeless community in and around the Ballard Commons, but actually had also spread to a restaurant in and around the Ballard Commons. We want to make sure that we keep everybody as safe as possible. We want to treat people humanely and compassionately, but when you are faced with a pandemic, that states that we need to keep people so they're not gathering, and on top of that you have a Hepatitis A outbreak, and you continue to have unsanitary conditions, despite the hygiene facilities that you put there, and you have vulnerable populations, seniors, essential workers -- the city has to take some actions.

Brogan in Leschi: I am a small landlord in Leschi, I have a fourplex. And I'm wondering if the current rent limits in place, I was wondering if there could be an exemption somehow for small landlords?

Radke: Do you mean rent control or the eviction moratorium?

Brogan: The eviction moratorium. The current moratorium now just got extended. For small landlords, they're going to be in big trouble. You know, we have expenses obviously.

Durkan: I've gotten this input from a number of places throughout Seattle. There's a number of families that rely on small rental homes that they own, including a lot of families who generationally, on places like Beacon Hill, have done so.

I've talked to Councilmember President Lorena González who sponsored this legislation, and we're going to keep an eye on what can we do to make sure the small landlords don't become displaced. And also look at what is our ability to give the rental assistance we need, so that we're not just dealing with no evictions, but that we're actually giving people the ability to stay in place, pay their rent, and not accumulate fees and lay charges.

And that's one reason the city was very supportive of what United Way King County is doing, and we increased the rental assistance that we're doing. I've talked to the congressional delegation and to Governor Inslee to say, we've got to help tenants stay in place, and they've got to be able to pay their rent so their landlords can get their rent. Because if the ecosystem fails, it'll fail for everyone.

How will you make it so tenants don't rack up fees and late charges and how will you make it so small landlords don't get displaced?

The number one thing that government together can do is make sure that we get people the support they need to be able to pay their rent, and that's going to be done in a patchwork of endeavors.

One, obviously, is as people are able to get unemployment and the $600 month Covid premium, that they will be able to pay some rent. The rental assistance programs are going to be critical and [U.S. House Representative] Pramila Jayapal has proposed legislation that would actually give small businesses the ability to keep people on payroll and pay them, rather than have people be on unemployment. So I think that looking at those things together, we want to make sure we're getting money into the pockets of people. And if people have money in their pocket, they pay their rent.

The City Council passed a bill that essentially protects renters from the evictions, or rent based evictions until December. And will you sign that?

Yes. And again, we're gonna be monitoring it to see what's happening. Our best assumption right now is we wanted people to know that at least through this year, nobody would be evicted. But we're very concerned that landlords who have mortgages to pay and others, also be able to meet their bills. So this is not the end of the discussion. It was the first step in the discussion.

Well, for example, will city taxpayers reimburse landlords and or tenants so they can pay whether it's their rent or their mortgage, taxes and insurance, etc.?

We don't have the resources to do that for every tenant and landlord in Seattle, as you know, Bill. And that's why it's going to be critical for both the state and the federal government to provide resources during this time. It's also why as we open up as a city, we want to make sure that we can get the city open so people can get back to work, so they can enjoy their lives, pay their bills, and not be in this very financially difficult position.

Anything you want to leave us with?

First is, we've done a tremendous job in Seattle and King County on staying home and probably leading the nation on really flattening the curve and avoiding overrunning our hospital system. But we're not out of the woods. And we know the majority of people in Seattle and King County are still susceptible to this virus.

Have patience, because we have to open right and be smart. And that means this weekend when it's, you know, in the mid 70s, to low 80s, we've still got to be smart in and around our parks. I get and I'm part of you that wants to get outside and enjoy these days of sunshine that are all too rare in Seattle. But we still have to remember we're in the middle of a pandemic crisis.

I look at this in basically three stages. We've got our crisis management/emergency response, our reopening, and then our recovery. We're still in the crisis management/emergency response. People are still getting sick. People are still dying. We're doing better. But as we start to reopen, we've got to be smart. And it's going to take longer if people aren't smart during this phase.

So enjoy the sunny weather, but keep moving. No picnics, no barbecues, no volleyball on the beach. We've really got to be smart about this. We can show that Seattle is not Covidiots. We are the smart Seattle.

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