Photo by Scott Schaefer

On Friday, March 6, 2020, King County Councilmember Dave Upthegrove – who represents Kent – issued a statement on the controversial decision the county made to purchase the Econo Lodge located at 1233 Central Ave N. (map below) with the intention of turning it into a coronavirus ‘quarantine.’

As we previously reported, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph has expressed her extreme displeasure with the county’s decision to purchase and turn this motel into a voluntary – possibly unsecured – ‘quarantine’ for victims of the coronavirus COVID-19 outbreak without discussing it with the city.

Upthegrove emphasized that the King County Council was not involved in any way in the selection of this property.

“These decisions are being made and implemented by our public health experts at Seattle-King County Public Health with guidance from the Washington State Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control,” he said.

Indications are that Public Health Department expects to begin using the motel as soon as next week for “1 or 2 people.”

But because this decision was made under a ‘Proclamation of Emergency,’ Upthegrove says that nothing more can be done at this stage.

“Once the facility is no longer needed for Coronavirus response, I believe any future use of the site should be required to go through normal planning and siting processes—where the City of Kent plays a key role,” Upthegrove said. “King County should not use emergency authority in a crisis to establish a facility that then serves a different function at the conclusion of the emergency. I don’t know if that is even legal. It certainly would not be appropriate. I am committed to working with the City to do everything I can to ensure that future use of any kind is established through a fair and complete process.”

Upthegrove adds that he is preparing to propose two amendments on Tuesday, March 1o to the county’s budget ordinance that would require the following:

1) Any quarantine and recovery sites used for the COVID-19 outbreak shall include plans for security, communication with the surrounding community, and services to the residents including transportation to their original location or home; and

2) If, after the declaration of emergency has passed, the Public Health Department plans to use the quarantine and recovery sites for any purpose other than the COVID-19 response, they must seek Council approval.

Here’s Upthegrove’s full statement:

Over the last couple days I have heard from a handful of Kent residents upset with the King County Executive’s decision this week to purchase a hotel in Kent for use as an isolation or quarantine site during the emerging Coronovirus pandemic. The City of Kent government has also expressed frustration and concern.

This is a very serious issue, taking place in the middle of the largest public health crisis our region has seen in our lifetime. I recognize and appreciate the fear and anger that people around the county are expressing—particularly in communities like ours where Seattle-King County Public Health is establishing facilities to respond to the crisis.

I was notified late Monday afternoon by a representative of the King County Executive that the department had purchased a hotel in Kent as part of the emergency response strategy. I was not informed of the specific location of the hotel. I inquired as to whether the city had been notified and was informed that the Mayor would be the next phone call.

The King County Executive rightly declared a proclamation of emergency at the outset of the outbreak in King County. This proclamation gives the executive branch of government—and in this case the Public Health Department — more authority to act swiftly and independently as necessary to protect public health and safety. As such, the decisions to establish isolation and quarantine sites around the county are not being made by the King County Council. These decisions are being made and implemented by our public health experts at Seattle-King County Public Health with guidance from the Washington State Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control.

I mention all of this to emphasize that the King County Council was not involved in any way in the selection of this property. Because of the proclamation of emergency, the King County Council is also constrained in our ability to impede steps the Executive deems necessary to protect public health. Even if the King County Council could block the Kent site, none of the King County Councilmembers other than me (who represents this area of Kent) have any incentive to do so.

This means that the hotel will be used for this purpose. The Public Health Department informs me they expect to begin using the motel next week for 1 or 2 people.

I have been in communication with Kent Mayor Dana Ralph, and am working with the city to try to get answers to questions and more information as it becomes available. Specifically, I’ve asked the following questions of the King County Executive’s Office:

      1. What communication protocols are in place to keep Kent residents and businesses informed about this facility?
      2. What medical services and/or monitoring will be offered on site and will it be offered on a 24/7 basis?
      3. How long is the anticipated length of stay for each quarantined individual?
      4. We have been told that potential residents of this quarantine facility include college students, air travelers and those who are unsheltered. What is the process for releasing people from quarantine and returning them to their home? If they are unsheltered, what navigation services will be offered to help them secure shelter outside of Kent?
      5. What restrictions, if any, will be placed on the movements of those who are quarantined?
      6. What type of security will be on-site?
      7. What are the long-term plans for this facility once the coronavirus emergency has passed?

As I get more information, I will be consulting with the city on the adequacy of the plans, and will advocate on behalf of the city with the Executive and Seattle-King County Public Health as needed to maximize security and minimize neighborhood impacts.

Once the facility is no longer needed for Coronavirus response, I believe any future use of the site should be required to go through normal planning and siting processes—where the City of Kent plays a key role. King County should not use emergency authority in a crisis to establish a facility that then serves a different function at the conclusion of the emergency. I don’t know if that is even legal. It certainly would not be appropriate. I am committed to working with the City to do everything I can to ensure that future use of any kind is established through a fair and complete process.

How and where future public services are located is particularly important because King County already has significant regional facilities and services located in Kent. The City has been an important regional partner, but King County needs to do a better job not only communicating with the city, but also working with the city to ensure that the provision of regional public services does not interfere with city’s economic development plans and city vision.

On Tuesday, the King County Council will be convening to approve an emergency budget appropriation to fund the public health response work. The funding for the hotel purchase came from another source and has already been spent. Nonetheless, I am preparing and proposing two amendments to this budget ordinance that would require the following:

1) Any quarantine and recovery sites used for the COVID-19 outbreak shall include plans for security, communication with the surrounding community, and services to the residents including transportation to their original location or home; and

2) If, after the declaration of emergency has passed, the Public Health Department plans to use the quarantine and recovery sites for any purpose other than the COVID-19 response, they must seek Council approval.

I don’t know yet if I will receive support for my amendments, but I have strategically tried to be measured and pragmatic in my proposals in order to have a chance at getting them passed.

The County Executive has already established three additional sites and is actively seeking more locations throughout the County should the need arise. Current sites include:

      1. White Center – SW 112th St- capacity for 8 modular units
      2. Elliott Ave Site, Seattle – modular units with capacity up to 72
      3. Aurora Site, N 128th St, Seattle – planned for 6 modular units
      4. Kent motel site which has up to 85 beds.

I have requested that the department make a special effort to identify sites in East King County—and I understand that is occurring.

Finally, while I appreciate the Public Health Department is trying to secure ANY site they can that meets the necessary specifications, I worry about equity and social justice ramifications based on the locations that have been secured so far. At a King County Council meeting prior to the identification of sites, I made the following comments:

“It is in times of crisis that the values of government can get tested. And it can be easy to set aside things like our equity and social justice principles and other values when there is an emergency right in front of us. I just want to encourage the Executive to continue – even though they are emergency policies in a time of crisis—to use those values and that lens. If we continue to have emerging needs to isolate and/or quarantine people, be cognizant of how those locations are sited so we don’t end up, for example, with an undue concentration in low income neighborhoods, and that we are conscious of how those decisions align with our values.…be cognizant when it comes to things like siting to look at how that’s done in a geographically and socio-economically fair way.”

We must put public safety first, but not sacrifice our values in the process.

The outbreak of the Coronavirus is likely to get worse before it gets better. I am focused on making sure our public health professionals have the resources they need to do their jobs. I also am focused on helping community members get accurate information and get questions answered. This is a challenging time for our public health department and for county government. We are extremely fortunate to have one of the finest public health agencies in the world working tirelessly under difficult circumstances to keep our region as safe as possible and save lives.

As I get answers to my questions, I will share them with you. I will also keep you posted as to the outcome of my legislative efforts on Tuesday. I will remain in close communication with the Mayor and other city government officials to coordinate our efforts.

For up-to-date information about the Coronavirus, including contact information if you have questions, please visit www.kingcounty.gov/covid.