The Metropolitan King County Council unanimously approved more than $28 million in emergency funding Tuesday to help the county build and operate four isolation and quarantine sites for people who show symptoms of the novel coronavirus.
The funding allows King County to purchase a vacant motel in Kent and to place trailers or modular dorms on three county-owned sites, in White Center, Interbay and North Seattle. The White Center site inspired impassioned protests from neighbors who argued it is too close to residential areas and would be placed in a diverse, low-income community. They also complained that the decision was made with minimal public discussion.
The facilities, proposed last week by King County Executive Dow Constantine, intend to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus in what has become the national epicenter of the outbreak. The facilities are for people who have been exposed to the virus, but don’t have symptoms that need to be treated in a hospital or medical facility. Normally, such people would isolate themselves at home, but for some — the homeless and people who live in dorms or with the elderly — that could be unfeasible.
The White Center site would have room for 32 people in eight trailers; the North Seattle site would have room for 24 people in six trailers; and the Interbay site could house 72 people in nine modular dorms.
A proposal to remove the White Center site was shot down in a close vote.
“We need to do what we need to do in this emergency and we need to do it as well as we can,” said Council Chair Claudia Balducci.
The funding includes $19.5 million to buy and operate the new quarantine facilities; $6.1 million to address added costs taken on by Public Health – Seattle & King County; $1.6 million for the Human Services Department to prepare existing homeless shelters to handle the outbreak; and $1 million for outreach.
Constantine’s staff indicated all the money would be reimbursed by the state or federal government, according to a report prepared for the County Council.
Dozens of White Center residents spoke to the council, to protest the site in their majority nonwhite neighborhoods, saying they felt the county was foisting a potentially dangerous facility on a historically disadvantaged community that is unincorporated, with no local officials to represent them.
“This is about racial equity,” said Sili Savusa, director of the White Center Community Development Association. “This is another lesson on how we take community for granted.”
“We’re prioritizing equity and equity is not just a talking point,” said Councilmember Girmay Zahilay, who favored scrapping the White Center site.
But county officials countered they had considered equity issues when choosing the locations, although they skipped the formal process because of the emergency. Leo Flor, director of the county’s Department of Community and Human Services, stressed the urgency of the situation, saying they currently only have 15 beds available for isolation and quarantine, although more are coming.
“We are creating a capacity right now for folks who do not have a home or it is not safe for them to return to their home,” Flor said. Constantine’s staff said scrapping the White Center facility would delay the quarantine facility by at least a month and that council members needed to weigh the consequences of that.
The city of Kent is also attempting to block the county from creating an isolation and quarantine facility at the vacant motel. A court commissioner last week temporarily denied the city’s attempt, allowing the facility to begin accepting patients.