This afternoon, the City Council received a long briefing from King County Public Health and several city department heads on the status of the COVID-19 response in Seattle. It then went into an extended executive session with its attorneys, followed by a public session in which it modified the Mayor’s declaration of emergency and issued a resolution with requests and expectations for the Mayor in how she exercised her emergency powers.
Some points of particular note from the briefing:
- Dennis Worsham from Seattle-King County Public Health tried to deflect criticism regarding the lack of testing by pointing out that at this point since there is no COVID-specific treatment protocol, testing positive for the coronavirus has little immediate impact — a patient’s treatment won’t change.
- Council member Herbold pointed out that the new testing guidelines from the CDC and FDA that anyone with a recommendation from a healthcare provider can get tested for COVID-19 doesn’t work for people who don’t have a healthcare provider, and asked Worsham what we should do for those people. Worsham replied that community health clinics, which are getting briefed this week, will be an avenue for those people to get access to testing.
- Worsham also said that he expected to roll out school-based recommendations today. Council member Morales pushed him for more details, noting that changes for schools would have substantial impact on working families. Worsham largely agreed, and pointed out that the virus does not seem to be affecting children who don’t have underlying medical issues. He also noted the history of the H1N1 virus, in which closing schools was disruptive; based upon that, he said that they are not asking to close schools at this time — though he made no promises for the future.
- Council member Mosqueda continues to push for rolling out hand-washing stations across the city. She asked Worsham if there had been recommendations on that, and Worsham replied that there were none so far.
- Council member Herbold inquired as to whether testing of first responders is being prioritized, and whether they should advocate for the CDC to change the testing protocols for first responders. SFD Chief Harold Scoggins replied that the timing is important, because it takes days for enough for the virus to accumulate in a person’s bloodstream to register a positive test. So if testing is done too early, it could cause false negatives.
- HSD Director Jason Johnson updated the Council on specifically what the city is doing to help the homeless population. In addition to the additional shelter space (100 beds) announced earlier today, the city and King County are partnering through their Emergency Operations Centers to make centralized, bulk purchases of materials needed for the response — including enough to distribute to service providers — rather than have separate organizations order their own. Johnson also said that they are distributing hygiene kits and pushing hygiene standards information to providers and the homeless.
- Office of Economic Development Director Bobby Lee said that his department has been working on a detailed economic analysis of the impact of COVID-19 on local businesses, and is working on plans for supporting businesses, He said that the situation is “disastrous” for the hospitality sector, and the city is looking to provide relief where it can, including options for licensing, fees, and other payments to the city. Unfortunately, under the state constitution the city can’t make monetary gifts to provide financial support to businesses directly, but Lee pointed out that the just-approved $8.3 billion of federal aid for the COVID-19 response includes $1 billion set aside for small businesses. The issue will be how quickly the government can get money into people’s hands.
The Council’s modifications to the Mayoral Declaration were mostly legal parsing to clarify some of the limits and reporting requirements the Mayor will need to abide by while exercising her emergency powers. The Council did catch and correct one item: the Mayor’s declaration state she would use her emergency powers to bypass standard procurement and contracting regulations — including the rules that are part of the ordinance granting her the ability to declare an emergency. The Council rightly said that was a no-no, and made it explicit that Mayor Durkan definitely needs to follow those rules.
The Council also clarified that in delegating powers to the Chief of Police and Fire Chief to direct population and property protection, control of incidents, and maintenance of public peace and order, their actions “shall be to enforce existing laws and regulations” unless authorized by a future order of the Mayor or King County Public Health. In other words, the Mayor didn’t just give them a free pass to violate Seattle residents’ civil liberties.
And just for good measure, the Council removed from the declaration a sentence that simply restates what the City Charter already says: in an emergency, the Mayor has sole control over the police and the City Council can’t intervene. Technically, it’s redundant, but I’m sure there’s a message from the Council to the Mayor in the fact that they went to the trouble to remove it.
The Council’s accompanying resolution addresses the fact that the Council can’t direct the Mayor on how to use her emergency powers, but it can make requests and set expectations.
Section 1 of the resolution requests the Mayor to make expenditures for:
- hand-washing stations;
- hygiene services, including the mobile pit-stops approved in the budget. Council member Herbold noted that while the city is still working on policies for deployment and siting of the mobile pit-stops, there is no reason it can’t move forward with procurement of the equipment now while it simultaneously completes the policy work;
- increasing the access of low-income persons to COVID-19 testing;
- culturally and linguistically appropriate outreach materials.
Other requests in the resolution:
- amending city personnel policies and labor agreements to encourage telecommuting as necessary;
- reviewing options for city staff and contractors to take paid days off if their sick leave runs out;
- an analysis of the Race and Social Justice implications of exercising emergency powers;
- consideration of how emergency powers could impact homeless communities;
- an order related to price controls on products used by Seattleites to prevent the spread of COVID-19;
- an order on price controls on “essentials for survival such as housing and shelter”;
- encouraging private service sector employers in the city, including gig economy companies, to provide sanitary and safe working conditions and to allow their employees to use paid sick and safe time for “time away from work for public health purposes”;
- discouraging private companies from taking punitive action against employees who miss work because of illness or public health reasons.
- a weekly report, starting March 20, on “actions taken during the civil emergency,” including expenditures, contracts, positions filled, details on how enforcement of criminal and civil laws is being prioritized.
Finally, the resolution says that the Council intends to consider at least monthly whether to continue, modify, or repeal the civil emergency.
Reading between the lines, it’s clear that some of the Council members don’t have much trust in the Mayor and want to keep the leash short when it comes to exercising emergency powers. That is certainly well within both their right and their responsibility in providing oversight and a check on the Mayor’s power.
In response to the Council passing the resolution and modified emergency declaration by an 8-0 vote this afternoon, the Mayor’s Office issued a statement:
For the last two months, City departments and the Mayor’s Office have been focused on preparing to respond to and slow the spread of COVID. To build on the City’s actions, including initiating the emergency operations center this week, the Mayor signed a Proclamation of Civil Emergency and has begun deploying assistance to help our vulnerable individuals. The Mayor has made COVID response a priority and looks forward to Council’s continued support and partnership during this public health emergency.