Hours before she received news that the country’s first reported COVID-19 death had occurred just outside Seattle, Mayor Jenny Durkan led local Girl Scouts in a downtown parade to celebrate their new “Lemon-Ups” cookies. That was Feb. 28.

Now parades are precisely what Durkan wants to avoid. Hundreds of people have died in the area since that day, and the mayor expects large-scale events, including spectator sports and major concerts, to remain banned in the city through the end of the year. Today, the streets where the scouts marched are deserted, except for people in sleeping bags and tents who haven’t been housed, even amid the pandemic.

Though Seattle was the early epicenter, Durkan has by design played a supporting role in the public health response to date, deferring to Gov. Jay Inslee and experts on many issues while directing emergency assistance to vulnerable households and preaching science-based values on national television.

But pressure is building at City Hall. As Seattle tentatively enters recovery mode, Durkan is working to distribute masks and boost testing capacity, drawing sharp criticism for her approach to homelessness from some corners, staring down a monster budget hole and contending with a push to tax big businesses.

“There was no playbook for this,” the mayor said in an  interview. “My job has changed dramatically.”

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan participates in a video news conference from City Hall. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan participates in a video news conference from City Hall. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

Crisis response

Durkan had been put on notice about the coronavirus threat in January, when a Snohomish County resident was diagnosed, and City Hall made some preparations. The mayor was taken by surprise, however, when the disease struck with devastating consequences at a Kirkland nursing home, she said.

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“We did not see the virus in our community. We had every indication that it wasn’t here, that it was safe,” she said. You suddenly realize you are now in the middle of a crisis of a significance and proportion that no one had planned for.”

Downtown drew the mayor’s immediate attention. Over the next week, Durkan said, she began urging the city’s largest companies to have employees work from home. She also met with King County Executive Dow Constantine and contacted the U.S. Conference of Mayors to warn other big-city executives, she said. “That first week, the best dial we had was to get people out of the downtown core,” Durkan said.

Not until March 11 did Durkan and Constantine join a news conference at which Inslee announced the country’s first statewide ban on large gatherings. Days earlier, on March 7, the politicians had allowed a Seattle Sounders soccer match to be held. Should they have?

“If we had the science we have today,” Durkan said, “I think all of us would say, ‘No.’ But at the time, the best understanding of public health was that it was a low-enough risk.”

CenturyLink Field’s last crowd was on March 7, when the Sounders played a soccer match. “… At the time, the best understanding of public health was that it was a low-enough risk,” says Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
CenturyLink Field’s last crowd was on March 7, when the Sounders played a soccer match. “… At the time, the best understanding of public health was that it was a low-enough risk,” says Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

The mayor said: “There’s no indication that the event actually accelerated the growth of the virus here in Seattle.” Authorities don’t know how many people who attended the match later tested positive, King County’s health officer has said.

Durkan’s involvement has been partly shaped by a structure established in 1950. That’s when Seattle and King County created a joint public-health authority, said director Patty Hayes, who leads the 1,400-employee agency with health officer Dr. Jeff Duchin. They initially took center stage at the local level, rather than Durkan and Constantine. That strategy is what experts recommend and “was really important and effective,” said Jennifer Balkus, an assistant professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, because politicians (like Inslee) are more likely to elicit polarized reactions.

Another dynamic has played out on MSNBC, CNN and other cable channels. The mayor, who normally relies on spokespeople to handle most news requests, made 27 national media appearances in March and 15 in April, according to records provided by her office, with the Seattle area’s early spike in coronavirus cases attracting eyeballs across the country.

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Like thousands of others, Durkan now works from home most days; a dozen department leaders join a video call to brief her each morning. She’s been riding her electric bike through Seattle neighborhoods to check on the construction projects the governor has allowed to resume, she said.

Seattle’s role

Durkan’s role grew as caseloads soared and as Inslee’s March 23 stay-home order shuttered countless businesses, leaving huge numbers in Seattle without work.

“The city has many services that have needed to be coordinated and adapted to these extraordinary circumstances,” Hayes said, noting Seattle firefighters trained and deployed to test for the virus at besieged nursing homes.

The mayor announced March 16 the city would send $800 each in supermarket vouchers to households already enrolled in subsidized child care and food programs. Since then, vouchers have been sent to additional households.

Michael Kelly helps Phil Parsons, owner of DBH Handymen, as they board up windows in March in Belltown to prevent vandalism. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Michael Kelly helps Phil Parsons, owner of DBH Handymen, as they board up windows in March in Belltown to prevent vandalism. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

Durkan and council adopted emergency moratoriums on evictions and other renter protections, angering landlords who’ve seen less help coming their way. City Hall also has begun piping emergency dollars authorized by Congress into human services, including a rent-assistance program and meal-delivery systems that senior center workers and volunteers built.

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The mayor has opened 23 miles of streets to pedestrians and cyclists, and her administration has distributed tens of thousands of masks while managing a child care program for essential workers.

“The city has moved swiftly and been responsive in certain areas,” Council President M. Lorena González said.

In other areas, Durkan’s approach has been “less than urgent,” González said, pointing to homelessness.

Seattle has closed public spaces like libraries and has been slower than some other cities to provide widespread hygiene services to people in encampments. At the same time, the administration has continued to conduct certain removals of encampments, citing neighbor concerns and criminal activity. 

Though the city has made almost 300 referrals from encampments to shelters and tiny-house villages (people referred may not actually end up sheltered), the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has warned against encampment removals unless authorities can provide individual housing options, such as hotel rooms. The removals can lead people who already are struggling to disperse, break connections with social workers and spread the virus, according to the CDC.

The Durkan administration, which strenuously defends its work on homelessness, has opened additional shelter spaces to allow more distance between beds and is supporting services at hotels where the county has moved homeless people. The city hasn’t rented additional hotel rooms.

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The number of COVID-19 cases associated with King County shelters and housing for formerly homeless people nearly tripled from mid-April to mid-May, from 87 to 249, and seven people have died.

“Some of what the Durkan administration has done, or not done, has left me wondering whether anyone on the seventh floor (where the mayor works at City Hall) understands public health,” said Alison Eisinger, executive director at the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness.

Several city workers, including Seattle police officers, work at an encampment removal Thursday, May 21, on South Weller Street. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Several city workers, including Seattle police officers, work at an encampment removal Thursday, May 21, on South Weller Street. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)

The county has been a more responsive and willing partner, said Eisinger, whose organization lobbies for and coordinates among nonprofits that serve homeless people.

The situation also has disturbed several council members, who have been pushing the administration to consider hotel rooms as an option, González said. Councilmember Tammy Morales last week introduced legislation that would restrict City Hall’s ability to carry out most removals during the pandemic.

“There are areas in which the mayor has managed things very well and other areas that just don’t match our council values and priorities,” González said.

Spending more shelter money on hotel rooms, the council president said, “would help minimize the spread of the virus and would accomplish the goal of bringing people inside from unsanctioned encampments.”

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Encampments are stirring debate. While a Thursday removal in Little Saigon drew onsite protesters, a Friday letter supporting the city’s ability to undertake such actions garnered hundreds of signatures from business people and residents, the Downtown Seattle Association said.

The recovery

Inslee at some point will clear King County to enter Phase 2 of his recovery plan, which says certain businesses, such as hair salons and restaurants, may reopen. Still, Seattle residents should expect the city to move slowly, compared to the rest of Washington, Durkan says.

More testing must be available in the city before Phase 2 because “we know the disease is going to increase” when such businesses reopen, said Stephanie Formas, Durkan’s chief of staff. Seattle is working with local partners to set up mass testing sites and has procured 50,000 kits from South Korea, she said.

Atlantic City Boat Ramp in Rainier Beach has served as both a drive-up and walk-up testing site for people concerned they might have the coronavirus. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)
Atlantic City Boat Ramp in Rainier Beach has served as both a drive-up and walk-up testing site for people concerned they might have the coronavirus. (Amanda Snyder / The Seattle Times)

When Phase 2 arrives, “we’ll turn the dial and see what happens,” rather than risk a reversal by rushing ahead, said Durkan, who views large-scale events like spectator sports as “very high-risk” in Seattle until a vaccine emerges.

Economic challenges also are looming. The Durkan administration has distributed $10,000 grants to 250 small businesses, with more on the way, but those allocations haven’t come close to addressing the need that exists.

For many businesses, $10,00o won’t last long, said Tougo Coffee’s Brian Wells, who hasn’t received a grant. At his cafe on Yesler Way, sales are down 75-80% since the virus emerged, Wells said, calling community hubs like coffee shops crucial for mental health. “We’re making just enough … to stay open right now.”

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Durkan has her own money problems. Last month, her budget director projected a $300-million gap between the revenue Seattle expected to collect for basic services this year and the city’s new reality — an 18% reduction.

The mayor has nixed most hiring and can tap City Hall reserves that contain about $128 million. Durkan is determined, she said, to preserve human and public-safety services. Federal aid should mend some wounds. “I don’t think a blunt cut, across the board, is the way to approach this,” she said.

But there will be no escape from hard choices and no one to defer to on the budget, said former Mayor Mike McGinn, who worries Seattle residents don’t yet comprehend the city’s hole. Determined to spare human services in 2010 and 2011, McGinn cut community center hours and stopped hiring police, among other moves. Today’s situation is worse.

Pausing at Elliott Bay Books, Mayor Jenny Durkan finds herself deep in conversation. She says  interactions on the street help her stay connected to the city she is leading amid the coronavirus crisis. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)
Pausing at Elliott Bay Books, Mayor Jenny Durkan finds herself deep in conversation. She says interactions on the street help her stay connected to the city she is leading amid the coronavirus crisis. (Dean Rutz / The Seattle Times)

“This is like the budget that (predecessor) Greg Nickels and I had to deal with over two years, but compressed into two months,” McGinn said.

Then there are the cracks that have shut down the West Seattle Bridge, which could cost tens of millions of dollars to repair and much more to rebuild. “In any other time, this would be the biggest issue I’d be dealing with this year,” Durkan said.

A push by Morales and Councilmember Kshama Sawant to tax Seattle’s largest corporations was blocked this month on procedural grounds. Durkan has dismissed the concept as an emergency measure because the new tax couldn’t be collected until 2022. “There is no way for (a new Seattle business tax) to help us in this budget crisis,” she said.

Yet the conversation is bound to heat up again, perhaps stoked by alternative proposals. Postponing the discussion would be a mistake, because the health emergency also is a socio-economic crisis, said Stephen Bezruchka, a senior lecturer of health services at the UW. COVID-19 is hitting poor people harder, he said.

“Social spending accomplishes much more than spending on medical care,” he said. “In our current situation, how can we increase social spending? It can only come from progressive taxation.”