Notes from today’s Council meeting, including COVID-19 updates

In the Council’s first Monday meeting by Skype, they heard a long briefing from county and city officials on the status of the COVID-19 response, and took care of a few items of business.

In a sure sign that the Council members live in the same world we do, the first ten minutes of the conference call were taken up resolving various technical difficulties. Fortunately, after that things seemed to go smoothly. The Council did not take live public comment today, but instead encouraged members of the public to submit comment by email or on paper at City Hall. Council member Sawant, however, pushed for their staff to find a way to allow for live public comment in future weeks.

Council President Pro-tem Teresa Mosqueda noted that last Friday the Mayor issued an emergency order directing city departments to apply for federal and state funding and resources to aid in the city’s response to COVID-19. While the Council has the option to approve, modify or reject the order, Mosqueda decided that there was no need for them to get involved in this one and will not be bringing forward a resolution; instead it will simply go into effect unabated.

In the main briefing, which went well over an hour, Public Health Seattle-King County Director Patty Hayes, Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong, and Emergency Management Director Laurel Nelson presented updated information on the COVID-19 response and answered Council members’ questions.  Of note:

  • Hayes said that testing capacity is increasing quickly; constraints on FDA-approved tests has been a severe constraint across the country and has prevented a full understanding of how far the virus has actually spread.
  • Despite the lack of testing to-date, Hayes believes that there is “quite a bit” of COVID-19 already in the community. She explained that only in the health community’s best estimation, only about 20% of infected individuals show serious enough symptoms to be noticed. As of this afternoon there were 116 confirmed cases, which would suggest there are nearly 600 infected individuals in King County.
  • Eight long-term care facilities now have confirmed cases of COVID-19. The state Department of Health is setting up a unit to support them.
  • As the number of confirmed cases grows, King County Public Health is shifting its focus. Up to now, it has put much energy into “contact tracing” — documenting who infected persons have come into contact with and reaching out to those people. But that doesn’t scale up, so moving forward their contact tracing will be focused on the affected long-term care facilities, and the remainder of their efforts will be on community mitigation. They have task forces set up for every major sector, and will focus on hygiene and social distancing.
  • Hayes shared a CDC graphic which encapsulates the mitigation strategy: using early, targeted and layered “non-pharmaceutical interventions” (NPIs) such as hygiene practices, social distancing, discouraging large gatherings, cancelling large events, and potentially closing schools and businesses to slow the spread of the virus through the community. It means that the outbreak will go on longer before it burns itself out, but the peak will be much lower. That makes a crucial difference in that it (hopefully) prevents the disease from overwhelming the available healthcare system.
  • Hayes said that her organization has been working for over a month on the “NPI matrix” of potential interventions and under what circumstances they might be triggered. Here is their matrix:
    Hayes said that they have been discussing the “level 4” interventions, including mandatory cancellation of public events and closure of schools. So far they are not recommending that schools proactively close unless there is a confirmed case in the school, though she is trying to respect individual schools’ discretion. Hayes noted that so far there don’t seem to be any signs of infection with children under the age of 9, for reasons still unknown, and while there have been some cases among children ages 9-18, they have been minimal with no hospitalizations. She believes that closing schools would not be effective in preventing children from congregating, and would have downstream impacts on healthcare workers who are parents — but who really need to be at work during a major health emergency. And for many low-income children, school is an important opportunity to get healthy breakfasts and lunches.
    Hayes said that they hope never to get to the point of needing the “stage 5” interventions such as preventing non-emergency travel outside of the home or sealing off the boundaries to a region as Italy and China have done.
  • Hayes said that as of now they are discouraging people to go to gatherings of more than 50 people, though they are far more concerned about indoor gatherings than outdoor ones such as sports events. She said that she was “so appreciative” that Comic-Con voluntarily cancelled its Seattle event. Hayes said to expect more guidance soon on gatherings and events.
  • In response to a question from Mosqueda, Hayes said that the CDC has not yet provided guidance for managing COVID-19 in jails and detention centers. Nevertheless, she said that they are setting up systems in the King County Jail to isolate and quarantine infected individuals, and that they are evaluating (though not testing) everyone at intake.
  • Nelson said that city departments continue to look at different scenarios for how to move forward, including NPIs. She said that they are looking hard at the negative impacts of not offering certain city programs in community centers, senior centers, and libraries.
  • Nelson also mentioned that the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall has opened up as an additional homeless shelter to relieve pressure on the DESC shelter downtown; DESC is a heavily-utilized shelter than can get crowded. The exhibition hall is being set up to allow for more space between those staying there, to decrease the chance of spreading the virus.
  • Fong noted the economic impacts on businesses (large and small) and workers that the virus and the NPIs in place are having. He said that the Mayor’s Office expects to propose several actions to mitigate those impacts, some of which would require legislative actions. Actions under consideration include deferring payment of B&O taxes, utility bills, and other fees for distressed businesses; working with the federal Small Business Administration to expedite small business loans and potentially modifying existing loans; supplementing the city’s existing small business stabilization program; and encouraging the state and federal governments to supplement unemployment insurance resources.  Mosqueda pushed hard for Fong to look into additional measures that would help “gig economy” workers. Sawant wanted the city to look at moratoriums on commercial evictions, as well as urging commercial landlords to work out payment plans with their small business tenants. Herbold said that she wants to move quickly on establishing commercial rent control for the months of April and May  (commercial rent control is not illegal under state law; only residential rent control is).
  • Herbold inquired as to whether the city could make its telecommuting policy for city employees more equitable by allowing call center employees to work from home. She cited past precedents where Seattle Public Utilities and Seattle City Light let call center employees telecommute — including taking calls at home — when they were trying to reduce the backlog and wait times. She did recognize that the city currently has technical constraints on the number of individuals who can telecommute in, but argued that the city’s IT department should be working to relax those constraints.
  • Herbold also pushed hard for the city to move faster in deploying hygiene solutions for the city’s homeless community, including hand-washing stations and rolling out the “mobile pit-stops” that the Council put into the 2020 budget.
  • Hayes provided guidance on who to call if you have questions about COVID-19. First and foremost, she discouraged people from calling 911 for anything but emergencies. For general questions about COVID-19, she encouraged people to call the state COVID-19 hotline number. And for specific inquiries about how to proceed if someone believes that they could have been exposed to the virus, she gave the number for her organization.

This afternoon, Mosqueda introduced a new bill, to be considered in the coming weeks, that closes a loophole in the city’s paid sick and safe time ordinance. Currently parents may take a sick day when their child’s childcare provider or school closes, but only if it closed under order from a public official for various health reasons. Mosqueda’s bill would remove the requirement that a public official must order the closing, an important change given what is happening with COVID-19 today. The bill was introduced as an “emergency ordinance,” which allows for expedited consideration by the Council.

The Council also approved a bill repealing the moratorium on rent-bidding sites such as Rentberry. The moratorium, which has been in place for nearly two years. was enacted in order for the city to study the concept of rent-bidding and draw conclusions about whether it complied with the city’s fair-housing laws. But it was put in place before rent-bidding had a chance to catch on in Seattle, so there was no data for the city to study. At least on paper, Rentberry can now move ahead with offering its service (and can drop its lawsuit against the city). However, in practice rent-bidding clearly violates the city’s “First in Time” tenant protection ordinance, which the state Supreme Court upheld last fall. If Rentberry went ahead, it would quickly find itself on the wrong side of the law.