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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.
Credit: KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle mayor on a payroll tax, golf courses, and the West Seattle bridge

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

This is an edited and abbreviated transcript of Bill Radke's conversation with Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan on April 30, 2020.

I wanted to ask you about your reaction to the the promising results from this antiviral drug [Remdesivir].

[UW Infectious Diseases Specialist Dr. Helen Chu] and her colleagues in the flu study and at the UW, were it not for their work, we would not have been able to make the decisions we did to shut things down, to stop the virus, to break the curve. She's just done such groundbreaking work so quietly, and Remdesivir hits the scene, but she's been working on it for weeks with her colleagues. We are so fortunate to have scientists like her and others in this region because it has given us an advantage.

Dr. Chu had to face a decision in the very early days of the pandemic, do I follow every letter of the federal guidelines? Or do I bend the rules a little here? And she made that decision to to step out a little bit and she gets some credit for helping control this pandemic and understand it.

Absolutely. And Trevor Bedford, who used some of that work to do the modeling early on to show us that while we only saw a few cases -- there were hundreds of cases -- by then, the modeling showed us that by early April, we would have over 70,000 cases if we didn't act. So I feel really lucky to have them here.

Governor Inslee is reopening some business and recreation statewide. I wondered, even if these moves are okay for rural Washington, do you worry about an increase in infections in Seattle and feel like the rules ought to be different here?

I don't think there's a mayor in America who isn't worried. But I will say this: Governor Inslee has been a terrific leader and partner. He talks with me, [King County Executive] Dow Constantine, the mayors and county executives of Snohomish County and Pierce County, and really making sure that they get this right.

I think that there can be some regional approaches, as long as you have the other things in place you need, should there be an outbreak in that region. You've got to have hospital capacity. You have to have enough testing to monitor it, and you have to have contact tracing. And it's a different scale in each of those counties. But without those things you could see outbreaks. And for example, Yakima County has one of the most significant levels of virus in the state. And just because you're rural, doesn't mean it can't happen -- look at what's happening in Iowa.

So you're not specifically worried about Seattlelites congregating -- the idea of more congregating at construction sites and boat launches and bait shops, and even if that's not in Seattle, you risk people bringing it back home? But you're right with the governor on all his moves so far?

Absolutely. And I think that the devil is going to be in the details. Because nobody in Seattle or anywhere else is going to be able to have business as usual like it was in February. There is a new normal and that normal is going to change on the dial as we reopen things, but every business is going to have to do business in a different way to keep their workers and their customer safe.

I think people are going to have to gather differently. And we're going to have to do this slowly, because the way this virus works, you don't know for two weeks what the impacts are. And so as we open things up, we have to have in place adequate testing, and adequate contact tracing, so if somebody test positive for the virus, we can see who they may have infected, test or isolate them as necessary, and hopefully contain it that way.

Because we know most of people in Seattle have not been exposed to this virus. And once people who haven't had the virus come in contact with people who have, that's when it starts duplicating really rapidly.

Seattle tax revenue is falling. You can't run a deficit. At what point does the city run out of money?

We won't run out of money. We will have some really tough budgeting decisions to make. No one could have prepared for the significance of this situation, but we have been really conscientious about preserving a rainy day fund and emergency funds in the city of Seattle. We will tap into some of those.

We're going to work with City Council to see what other savings we can get in other places. We're looking to federal government to offset the money we spent on coronavirus. So we're gonna be looking at a whole range of tools. But because we have to have a balanced budget, we can't spend more than we take in. That's just a rule of cities.

You told me last week, you're against a proposed payroll tax. So if federal money doesn't fill the gap, where do you get the money? Is it a different tax increase? Is it a cut?

I think we have to look at a range of choices. But I think what I said last week was in the proposed payroll tax, what people have to understand is, it cannot help us fix this budget gap because we won't see those monies for about two years.

So you're not actually opposed to it as proposed? Are you supporting it or have you decided?

No I think what I ... there's some serious flaws with it. Number one, we can't borrow the monies the way they've been proposed. Number two, [City Councilors Kshama Sawant and Tammy Morales] said that they will be mailing checks to people, we know that can't happen. And I think it's not fair to say that. And three, there's the whole economic issue about how large of a tax should you have at a time when businesses, most of them are shuttered? And there's also, how do you pay back any loans you take, if the tax itself doesn't come in like you projected?

So on balance, given all of that, where do you stand on a payroll tax?

I think we have to continue to work together with City Council. The number one focus we have to do is to support businesses, reopen jobs, make sure our workers are getting the money they need in their pockets. The City of Seattle can't do that alone. The federal government has to continue to step up. And they have to change their formula so the big businesses like Ruth's Chris Steakhouse aren't getting the loans while the small businesses aren't.

If federal money doesn't fill the gap, do you support this payroll tax idea? Do you support a different tax increase? And if not, what would you cut? Are you just saying you can't answer those questions today?

I think the number one thing is Bill, the first part of the question is a false choice. Because this payroll tax cannot fix this budget gap. We will not have the money. So we have to look for other ways to do things. And so that's going to be going department by department and seeing what things are most necessary and what things we can delay.

It's going to mean trying to figure out how much of the rainy day fund can we use? We have to look to see if there's additional revenues in any other places. Most of our revenues are dropping. So there's going to be a lot of very hard conversations just to balance it for 2020, let alone what has to happen in 2021.

Andreas in Mountlake Terrace: I was wondering, since I'm in high school, and I know that school is closed for the rest of the school year, what is what's going to happen for school districts in Washington and Seattle in the fall? Is there still going to be a closure?

I think the governor talked a little bit about that. He is looking to see and working with school districts. I think we have to see where we are in terms of the virus, in whether we've controlled it, or whether there's an upswing again.

I know that school districts across the state are looking at what options they would have if they can't have in-class teaching. I think everyone hopes that we can. But we're in uncharted territory. We know that we've kind of slowed the virus, but once we start opening up things again, everybody knows the virus is coming back. And the question is, can we control it through enough testing and tracing.

Laura in Fremont: The parks have been closed, I understand they're going to be open soon. But it brings to mind the huge areas of acreage, which are the Seattle golf courses. And it would be so nice to have access to all that beauty in acreage. This is an opportunity to expand the use of public lands for the citizens. What do you think of that?

First, I want to get rid of one misapprehension. Our parks are open. We only closed the major regional parks for one weekend because we'd seen way too many people congregating in them. Since that time, we've been talking to people, we put up signs to keep people moving to remind them, no picnics, no barbecues, no volleyball. And people, by and large, have done what we've asked them so our parks are open.

We're also trying to have more space on the streets for greenways and bicycling. I do want to remind people, the goal is not to go out and stay out. The goal is still stay home. If you need to get outside, do get outside.

With golf courses, one of the huge obstacles we have is that our parks department would have to maintain those in the same way we maintain the parks. And like every department,it's been stretched through in this pandemic. One, because like any frontline employees, there's people who can't come to work. Second, they're the ones who are staffing our community centers for the homeless shelters that we've stood up. So I would love to see golf courses more accessible for people, but we'd have to do it in a smart way.

You've expanded homeless shelter beds so the residents can be more spread out. Why not do more of what King County is doing, moving people out of congregate shelters into unused hotel rooms so they can quarantine separately?

We've been working with King County in kind of a unified approach doing all of the above. We will continue to look at the ability to see if we can use hotels more frequently.

But as I said last week, it's not just that -- you can't just rent the hotel room, you actually have to have someone there who is providing the services. And in the case of the most recent move, because they're removing an existing shelter run by Catholic Community Services, Catholic Community Services is providing the staffing for those hotels. But we've seen, for example -- in San Francisco, in Southern California, who were very ambitious at the front, who rented many hotel rooms -- now are only using a fraction of those hotel rooms, because they don't have the staff to give the services and wraparound services that people experiencing homelessness need, let alone the meals and the other things that have to come with it.

So we have been exploring all options, all options are on the table. Number one thing I want to say is, with the county, we've been asking the state and the federal government for more resources to more broadly be able to bring people inside, which I think is everybody's goal.

Rob in Seward Park: I haven't heard anyone talking either at the city level or county or state or even federal level about using an application to help manage things like contact tracing, and test management and PPE supplies and ventilators and that sort of thing. It seems sort of odd that we live in a city with two of probably the most capable technology companies on the planet, but I don't hear anyone talking about using the technology that we have in our pockets to help attack this thing.

Radke: We have discussed an app that UW researchers and some Microsoft volunteers are working on, a contact tracing app called CovidSafe.

Durkan: I think we can use more. But the good news for you, Rob, is we we did pull in a lot of those resources at the state and county and city level. And Amazon, Microsoft, Tableau, companies like that, have now built dashboards so for example, we can view in real time hospital capacity, number of beds, number of ICU beds, ventilators, personnel PPE and other equipment.

Admiral [Raquel] Bono was brought in by Governor Inslee to get that up and running. And they've got that up and running. We've also done the same thing and building the capacity for as we test, and as we find infections, where are they?

On contact tracing, I think we have to do a hybrid of both tech and individuals doing the investigation. But we have to make it as easy as possible for us to do the contact tracing. A number of jurisdictions and places around the world are using a variety of different kinds of apps. I think we can look at one where people voluntarily can just keep track of where they've been, or journal it, so that if they do become positive, it is much easier to go back and see where you've been in the last two weeks.

So I think that there's a range of issues we can do. I think people have some privacy concerns that have to be addressed. But I think we would be foolish not to use technology to help us.

This month, the city gave $10,000 grants to 250 small businesses. And we know grants and loans have been harder to get for minority owned businesses. Does this program consider whether the owner is a racial or ethnic minority, is an immigrant, is a refugee?

We focused on those people who would have the least access to resources. And if you look at where the grants went, we had a significant proportion of them going to businesses owned by people of color or immigrants and refugees.

Significant meaning in line, or beyond that, with the demographics?

I can get you the numbers, but it might even have been a majority of the ones, because we really focus in our outreach, because we know those businesses not only don't have the resiliency, but a lot of the federal money is not available particularly for people that don't have documented status. And so in order to get people money immediately, we wanted to get it in the hands of people who had less access, and were at the outer edges of economic resilience.

Brenda in West Seattle: I'm very concerned about the West Seattle bridge. And out here, you know, we are stranded due to the pandemic and we're stranded due to the bridge. I really hope that we can get personal protective equipment on the construction workers. And let's get going on this bridge.

This is a huge blow to West Seattle and it couldn't come at a worse time. And in some ways, that's good because fewer people are commuting in right now, but we know that's short lived and we know that this is added to the isolation that people feel in West Seattle, as well as looking to what the future is.

We're working really hard to determine, at the same time, do we need to fix and repair the bridge? And can we extend its life for a period of time that makes sense? Or do we need to replace it? And we're also looking at every mobility option we might have for West Seattle, whether that is more foot ferries... everything is on the table. And we're looking at the range of things because, look, we want to reopen community in Seattle. And that's first and that also means reopening the economy. And that was the most used bridge in all of Seattle -- carries over 100,000 people a day, and a significant amount of transit. So we know we've got to do something to get that back and running.

Some good news, we think that we will be able to get the West Seattle Farmers Market open to bring something back to West Seattle, that is truly West Seattle. But I know that bridge is huge and we are working on it.

Tanisha in Issaquah: I am supposed to be getting married on June 6. What are your thoughts on when you think gatherings of over 50 people are going to be allowed again?

I think over 50 is going to be a while. We call what we are now, in Phase One. Phase Two is to move to reopen different kinds of businesses and allow more people to come together. I think 50 and more is more of a Phase Three, just because of the way the virus replicates. But the governor hasn't decided that yet. We're working really closely with him. We know this is really hard for people.

Congratulations on the wedding in June. It's hard to be a June bride and not know whether you're going to be able to have a crowd or not. So I'm sorry about that. Let us know where it is. And all of us will cheer you on.

Radke: Have you and your partner decided who you're going to disinvite if you cannot have a large wedding?

Tanisha: Probably mostly extended family.

Durkan: You know Tanisha, I got my ability to do weddings, so we should talk.

Radke: You hear that? The mayor of Seattle. Thanks for that.

Ruth in Loyal Heights: I have lived in Seattle for about 30 years and it used to be you could walk or ride your bike down 24th Avenue Northwest and not encounter very many cars. And that has exploded in the last 10 years. With Covid and people staying home, the traffic has calmed down, the noise level is down. When you open up the city, what will you do to keep people from driving everywhere?

I think 30 years makes you a native. I was just talking to Sam Zimbabwe, the head of Seattle's Department of Transportation and saying look, we have to use this as an opportunity to extend the ability for different mobility and get people out of their cars. And so we're looking at, how do we create more pedestrian ways? How do we create more bike lanes? How do we slow traffic down? And do that at a time when people aren't driving?

One of the things you end up with is this false battle that somehow we're taking something away from people. Right now, we have the opportunity to be re-crafting our vision of what the city is. It's a hard time to do it because our budget is so bad, but I think that it makes it all the more important.

I'm loving, the one thing that I can say is, the air is so much fresher, and the noise is so much reduced with fewer cars. And we're seeing that not just in Seattle, but around the globe. How do we break our dependency on oil at a moment in time when so few people are driving and using oil? I think it's a huge opportunity. It's not going to be easy, but I think we got to see some of those opportunities.