KENT — A court commissioner denied the city of Kent’s attempt late Friday to block King County from using a vacant motel as an emergency quarantine facility for people exposed to or potentially infected with novel coronavirus.
King County Superior Court Commissioner Mark Hillman’s ruling clears the way for 10 potentially infected firefighters to move into the EconoLodge on Central Avenue immediately and stay there until Wednesday.
After a lawyer for the county informed Hillman that the county planned to move the firefighters into the motel this weekend, Hillman ruled he would deny the city’s motion to temporarily stop any patients from occupying the motel.
“This is an emergency situation,” Hillman told Neil Dial, a lawyer for the city. “The 10 people who are in a position to move down there this weekend are firefighters … This is probably the least risky group of people you can have over at that motel.”
None of the firefighters has been confirmed to have coronavirus, county lawyer Howard Schneiderman, teleconferencing into the hearing, told Hillman. But each was potentially exposed to COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2, after responding to the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a lawyer for the county confirmed Friday. The nursing home is the site of a deadly outbreak that has killed 10 people and infected at least 20 others as of Friday afternoon.
But exactly which firefighters will be housed at the quarantine facility was unclear Saturday. Firefighters from Kirkland, Redmond and Woodinville, all of which responded to calls at the nursing home, won’t be among those quarantined in Kent, spokeswomen for the departments said early Saturday.
Hillman’s two-page order that denied the city’s motion for a restraining order said the county and its health department “may immediately operate the EconoLodge in Kent to house up to fifteen individuals” through Wednesday.
The ruling came shortly after Kent Mayor Dana Ralph and other city officials held a hastily arranged news conference a few blocks away at Kent City Hall to announce they would fight the county in court over the matter.
County officials, who two days earlier had said the quarantine site wouldn’t be operational for nine or 10 days, had informed the city just before noon Friday that “patients could be arriving in Kent as soon as this evening,” Ralph said.
“We felt it necessary to take this action because King County … failed to give us adequate answers around public health and safety, especially around the issue of patients leaving this facility and traveling throughout our downtown,” the mayor said.
Ralph added the city has asked the county three times since Wednesday to seek city permits that would spell out the operations for the quarantine center, but county officials have ignored those requests.
“Permits would help ensure the safety of the patients who have been quarantined in this facility that have been exposed to the virus, as well as the health and safety of the community at large,” Ralph said.
The clash over the facility emerged publicly two days ago, after Ralph said the city learned through a third party that the county planned to buy the motel for the quarantine site. City officials complained that King County Executive Dow Constantine’s office never informed or consulted with them and was foisting the facility on Kent because of its diverse and low-income demographics.
Constantine’s office has denied those claims, saying the 85-room motel property, purchased for $4 million, was the only site that met health officials’ criteria for the emergency quarantine facility. That included having rooms with separate HVAC units and doors that open to the outside, not to a hallway.
Constantine, who last Saturday declared a county emergency that allows him to take extraordinary measures and bypass normal procedures to protect public health, also announced the county would install modular housing in White Center, Interbay and North Seattle to be used to quarantine as many as 170 people.
“King County will continue to identify and acquire properties in all parts of the county to ensure residents, including health care workers and first-responders who come into contact with COVID-19, are housed appropriately,” Constantine’s office said in a statement Friday.
Kent Deputy City Attorney Tammy White said the city was “forced into a position” to take legal action, filing the restraining order motion Friday afternoon on the basis that the county failed to secure the necessary city permits to address lingering public safety concerns.
The city’s motion sought to prohibit public health officials “from bringing infectious individuals into the city of Kent and the EconoLodge … until King County proceeds through the permitting process” and ensures the quarantine operation meets the city’s safety standards, White said.
City spokesman Bailey Stober added Friday that county officials never specifically said who they planned to move into the motel this weekend.
“First-responders who’d potentially been exposed were one of about six examples they gave us, along with homeless people, people with immune deficiencies and several others,” he said. “They’ve never been specific.”
During Friday’s hearing, Dial, the lawyer for the city, tried to make the case that those quarantined at the motel would not be required to stay inside, and so could roam freely into the community and potentially put it at risk.
Hillman didn’t buy it.
“I haven’t heard any evidence that they are confirmed (with coronavirus),” he said. “What I’ve heard is that no one is confirmed — and again, I don’t think these first-responders are going to go out to the Jack In The Box to get a meal.”
Still, Hillman’s order noted the county must “make a good-faith effort to provide meals and supplies for the housed individuals.”
While it may seem unfair that the city is getting a quarantine center it doesn’t want, Hillman noted the firefighters also were unfairly thrust “into a position they didn’t know they were getting into.”
“There’s a lot of things that are unfair,” he said.
Another court hearing will be set before Wednesday to review the matter and ensure the order’s conditions have been followed. At that time, Kent officials will again make a case for halting occupancy at the motel until the county meets the city’s permitting requirements, Stober said.
Correction: A previous version of this story identified those expected to be quarantined in Kent this weekend as Kirkland firefighters, based on information provide by a county attorney. A Kirkland fire department spokesperson said Saturday that all Kirkland firefighters will utilize their homes or facilities in Kirkland.