KENT — Joined by city council members and the police chief, Kent Mayor Dana Ralph protested a King County plan to buy a motel along a key downtown corridor to be used as an emergency public health quarantine facility for coronavirus patients, contending city officials weren’t informed or consulted about the decision that could put their community at risk.
“We are very concerned about the public health and safety implications this has for our community,” Ralph said Wednesday. “They are replicating and bringing a situation similar in scale to the Life Care Center of Kirkland and dropping it off in Kent.”
In her statements, which referred to the long-term care facility in Kirkland that has been tied to most coronavirus deaths in Washington, Ralph said an unidentified third party informed Kent officials Monday evening about the county’s intention to buy the 85-room EconoLodge on Central Avenue North, which recently was listed for sale for $4.2 million.
City officials, in turn, called King County Executive Dow Constantine on Tuesday, who confirmed the county was closing a deal on the motel, she said.
When Kent officials asked why the county didn’t consult with the city about the decision, Constantine responded, “I forgot,” according to Ralph’s office. Ralph and other officials said the county appeared to intentionally choose a site in an area that is more diverse and not as affluent as the Eastside or Seattle.
“We firmly believe this is an equity issue,” Ralph said.
In an email later Wednesday, Constantine’s spokesman Alex Fryer disputed parts of the Kent officials’ contentions, saying the county did alert the city “as the transaction was closing.” He also said the county executive “never said he ‘forgot’ to contact the city of Kent; that is false.”
“Rather, we communicated as soon as possible, considering both the speed at which the acquisition took place and respect for the transaction with the property owner,” Fryer said.
The EconoLodge was selected, Fryer said, because it was the only motel on the market that met public health’s criteria, which includes rooms with separate HVAC units and doors that open to the outside, not to a hallway.
“This site came to the attention of the county real estate division in late February, and discussions about the purchase of the facility commenced and concluded in a matter of days,” Fryer said.
The county will need to spend almost $1.5 million in addition to the purchase price to get the two-story beige motel with red doors ready, said Chase Gallagher, a spokesperson from Constantine’s office who was at the motel Wednesday to address the media.
The location of the motel targeted for coronavirus quarantine had not been previously disclosed until Ralph’s news event at Kent City Hall. At the same time Wednesday, Constantine was addressing the media with the latest update on King County’s coronavirus response. During that briefing, he announced a deal to purchase an unidentified motel in Kent had been finalized.
“We’re working with the community and hope to have it operating within 10 days,” Constantine said.
On Monday, Constantine first announced he’d signed an emergency declaration a day earlier that “enables me to take extraordinary measures, including waiving some procurement protocols.”
“We’re going to be able to provide additional information on the location later,” Constantine said at the time. “We have not yet completed the transaction, but my real estate people tell me it is all but done and we should have it available for patients by the end of this week.”
Over the next day, Constantine’s office declined several times to identify which motel the county was eyeing.
Kent’s objections about a public health isolation facility operating on the 2.4-acre motel property, which is tucked between Highway 167 to the west and north and busy Central Avenue to the east, are the latest formal protests over quarantine siting in the wake of the coronavirus emergency, which, as of midday Wednesday, had claimed 10 lives in Washington and infected another 29 people.
During Monday’s news briefing, Constantine announced the county planned to set up modular housing in “multiple sites” for homeless people who become infected with COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus now spreading around the world, but he did not immediately disclose the sites.
On Tuesday, county officials announced one of those quarantine facilities — modular housing with 32 rooms — would be sited in the Top Hat neighborhood of White Center and start operating within 10 days. Constantine said Wednesday that modular housing also would be sited at yet-to-be-disclosed locations in Interbay and North Seattle, which together with the White Center facility will accommodate up to 170 people.
Tuesday’s announcement about the White Center site quickly drew criticism from state Sen. Joe Nguyen, a Democrat who represents the unincorporated neighborhood southwest of Seattle.
“I understand why this facility is needed,” Nguyen said in a statement. “But the appearance of placing it in a neighborhood that has already been historically marginalized conveys a message about whose safety we most value in our society that is not lost on me.”
Constantine said Wednesday that the site was chosen “because we own the land and it has access to utilities.”
“We must move quickly to stay ahead of this outbreak,” he said. “Every location that we select will be set up, monitored and staffed appropriately.”
Barbara Ramey, a county spokeswoman, also said in an email Wednesday the county didn’t seek to place a quarantine for homeless patients in White Center due to socioeconomics.
“I have not seen Sen. Nguyen’s comments specifically,” Ramey wrote. “This is a countywide emergency and we are looking for sites and facilities across the county. The White Center site was available quickly because it is a county-owned site with a vacant building. The Department of Local Services did outreach to stakeholders in the White Center area.”
However, some area residents said they were worried about the placement of the modular housing in their neighborhood.
Filsan Abdi, her friend Alisa Farah, and neighbor Robin Anderson live at Southside by Vintage apartments, across the street from the White Center site. They said Wednesday that their manager told them the facility would not elevate their risk of contracting coronavirus.
But they all said the placement doesn’t make sense; it’s a dense neighborhood, packed with neat houses, new apartments, lots of kids and not much open space.
“King County owns a lot of land and some with wide open space and horses,” said Anderson. “Why don’t they move some of those horses?”
Abdi said she was concerned about her two children, and Farah said the location didn’t seem coincidental to her.
“It seems like they’re just trying to wipe out this part, low income and minorities,” Farah said.
“They never put facilities like this in Bill Gates’ neighborhood,” said Abdi.
Another site being prepared to hold people in isolation or quarantine as part of the state’s response to the coronavirus is being set up at the former Maple Lane youth detention center in Centralia, Lewis County. On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday toured the the fenced-in site containing eight rented RVs divided into two different sections to use for both quarantine and isolation.
People who haven’t shown symptoms but who have been exposed to the disease and could be at risk would be placed under quarantine, said Nathan Weed of the state Department of Health. Isolation is for people who are ill and are showing symptoms.
Ralph, the Kent mayor, said the county has yet to answer many of her questions about how the quarantine facility will be operated or what the long term plan for the EconoLodge motel is. She said King County officials have been “looking at this site for months with the intent of using it for public health purposes including homelessness and as a site for other dangerous public health quarantines.”
“We are concerned the coronavirus is a pretext for the siting of a longer term homelessness or quarantine facility in Kent,” she said.
The mayor and Kent Police Chief Raphael Padilla both said county officials told them the people quarantined won’t be required to stay there and could leave and move throughout the city. The city doesn’t appear to have any legal recourse, but it’s asking the county to sell the building after the virus scare ends, Ralph said.
While frustrated with the county’s siting decision, Kent, like other cities, is ready to help, Ralph said.
“We understand we all play a role,” the mayor said.
Constantine’s office “understands all these communities have questions,” Fryer said, “and have begun outreach to do our best to answer them.”
Seattle Times staff reporters Joseph O’Sullivan and Christine Clarridge contributed to this story.