A trio of COVID-19 response announcements from the city (UPDATED 3/18)

Today the City of Seattle made three separate announcements of actions it is taking as part of its response to the COVID-19 outbreak.

(UPDATE 3/18 — see below on encampment cleanups)

First, the Mayor’s Office announced $1.1 million in funding to support artists and arts organizations who are being hit hard by the social-distancing measures imposed to slow the spread of the virus.

$100,000 will be given to organizations supporting artists: $50,000 to the Seattle Artist Relief Fund, and $50,000 to Artist Trust’s COVID-19 Artist Relief Fund. The city has set up a web page with more information on the organizations and how to apply for funding.

$1 million will be given to a new Arts Stabilization Fund, to provide relief to arts and cultural organizations that have been impacted by the moratorium on events and public gatherings. The funds will be distributed by the Office of Arts and Culture.

Second, the Seattle Department of Transportation announced that it will be temporarily converting some on-street parking spaces near restaurants to loading zones to allow for curbside pickup of take-out orders.According to the city, the loading zones will be approximately 40 feet in length, enough for two cars.

The first locations to receive temporary loading zones are areas with high concentrations of restaurants on blocks that do not otherwise have enough loading options. After an analysis of available data, the Seattle Department of Transportation selected the initial placement locations based on areas that have seen a reduction in paid parking traffic over the last several weeks.

“We are looking for ways to do our part to keep businesses operating in this public health emergency,” said Sam Zimbabwe, Director of the Seattle Department of Transportation. “Being flexible with our curbspace and making it easier for people to access our restaurants is one way we can help.”

The Seattle Department of Transportation will identify additional locations to place curbside pickup signs in coordination with organizations like the Office of Economic Development, the Seattle Restaurant Alliance and the Greater Seattle Business Association. Restaurants can request a loading zone near their establishment by calling (206) 684-ROAD.

Third, the Human Services Department announced that it is re-prioritizing the Navigation Team’s efforts away from coordinating homeless encampment cleanups to focus on COVID-19 assessments and outreach among the city’s homeless population, including delivering hygiene kits and public health flyers about the virus.

The Navigation Team has been under intense scrutiny in recent months. Its original mission was outreach to homeless individuals, but as the city formalized its process for assessing and removing homeless encampments, the Nav Team was given the responsibility for being the central coordinators of that effort — creating a conflict in the eyes of the people it was trying to serve as to whether it was there to help them or simply to remove them. And as the city’s shelters have filled up ad the Nav Team has been constrained in its ability to meaningful offers of shelter, it has shifted its work from cleanups that require 72-hour advance notice and offers of shelter to “obstruction” cleanups that do not. In the process of doing so, many have questioned whether the city is stretching the definition of “obstruction” in order to circumvent the requirements for ordinary encampment cleanups. And now, with the COVID-19 outbreak spreading through the city, some advocates and Council members have questioned whether the Nav Team is doing even more harm by pushing homeless people around the city unnecessarily. The issue has come up two weeks in a row in the briefings that the Mayor’s Office has delivered to the Council — including yesterday’s.

The announcement today tries to put the best spin it can on the situation, highlighting the outreach work that the Nav Team has done since the beginning of the outbreak that mirrors what it did during the last two major winter storms that hit Seattle. According to the city, as of March 13 the Nav Team has distributed 462 COVID-19 public health flyers and 126 hygiene kits across 172 sites. Team members have also screened individuals for the symptoms of COVID-19.

The announcement also teases future announcements “in the coming days” on the deployment of portable toilets, hand-washing stations, and hygiene trailers around the city, and on the expansion of existing shelters. It notes that over the last two weeks the city has added 100 spaces at existing shelters and opened up an additional shelter at the Seattle Center Exhibition Hall to de-compress crowding at other shelters to improve “social distancing.”

Then it finally gets to the real news: the city is “pausing” 72-hour cleanups, as well as “obstruction” cleanups, with the exception of the most… obstructive?

The Navigation Team, along with Seattle Parks and Recreation, Seattle Police Department, and other City partners, will continue to pause 72-hour removals and will pause obstruction operations to prioritize COVID-19 outreach. The team will continue to remove waste, garbage and debris from unmanaged encampments to reduce public health risks in unmanaged encampments. 

No such removals will occur during the public health emergency unless needed for an extreme circumstance that presents a significant barrier to accessibility of city streets and sidewalks, and is an extraordinary public safety hazard that puts people living unsheltered or others at risks. Individuals in all of these cases will be offered shelter. 

In practice, this new definition for an “obstruction” encampment isn’t materially different from the old one that the city has been accused of stretching. We shall have to see what ultimately qualifies as an “extreme circumstance” and an “extraordinary” public safety hazard.

UPDATE 3/18:  A spokesperson for the Human Services Department clarified the new directive on encampment cleanups during the COVID-19 emergency:

“All encampment removal operations have been suspended. This includes Community Police Team and Parks efforts. Exceptions will be made under extreme circumstances. An extreme circumstance may be living structures completely blocking the entire sidewalk, living structures prohibiting safe entry and exit from a building or use of a facility, or is a public safety danger to occupants and/or greater community. Here are some examples of what could be considered an extreme circumstance: 

    • A living structure on a ramp or roadway
    • A living structure blocking an entire sidewalk or bike lane
    • A living structure that presents fire or safety hazards to infrastructure (i.e. freeway supports/bridges) 
    • A living structure blocking an entry/exit to a building
    • A living structure in a play area 

Note that the team did 15 obstructions last month. That includes CPT and Parks obstruction work. These new “extreme circumstance” descriptors are more narrow than existing conditions for an obstruction removal.”



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