Plans to turn Washington state motel into quarantine site spark backlash

A two-story motel in a city south-east of Seattle has quickly become controversial amid Washington state’s coronavirus outbreak, as officials rush to convert it to a quarantine site, while others push back, calling the plan ill-conceived and dangerous.

Officials in King county, which includes Seattle and Kent, have been gearing up to begin housing patients in need of isolation and a place to recover, but not active treatment in a hospital, in this 85-bed Econo Lodge in Kent, about 20 miles south-east of Seattle.

They said on Friday morning they were finalizing the $4m purchase.

As the number of coronavirus cases in the state continues to increase, a county spokesman, Chase Gallagher, said the facility would help to free up hospital beds and offer people who live with someone at a higher risk of contracting the virus, such as an elderly person, and also those who are homeless a place to recover safely.

But Kent leaders are not happy with the idea. On Friday, the mayor, Dana Ralph, directed the city attorney to file a restraining order against the county to stop the opening of the quarantine facility.

The restraining order prohibits King county from bringing in people infected with coronavirus to the motel until they go through the city’s permitting process.

“I urge King county to partner with the city of Kent and present us with a reasonable and realistic plan so we can work together in this crisis,” Ralph said during a press conference on Friday afternoon. “Kent will be your partner. We will work with you. But you need to engage us and involve us and help us be a part of that plan and not work against us.”

Ralph told the Guardian that city leaders had been kept in the dark on plans for the quarantine site. She said they had only learned about the facility late on Monday through a “third party”, leaving them frustrated and extremely concerned about the facility.

As of Friday, Washington statehad 84 confirmed cases of the virus, with a total of 13 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins. The majority of the cases are in King county. Officials said they were also keeping tabs on 231 other people at risk of having been exposed to the virus.

The Econo Lodge motel in Kent.
The Econo Lodge motel in Kent. Photograph: Jason Redmond/Reuters

During a press conference on Wednesday, Kent’s police chief, Rafael Padilla, said he could not support this “ill-advised and dangerous” plan. He explained that not only had there been no firm confirmation that this would be a sober facility, where all alcohol and drugs were banned, but he was worried about voluntary intake at the motel, where people can come and go.

“At any point a patient could simply walk into our community and spread the virus,” he said.

The motel, made up of a series of rooms with doors that face out to the street, is surrounded by a highway, as well as an assortment of chain restaurants, apartments and a new senior facility. The mayor described the area as one of the main gateways into Kent.

Most coronavirus infections cause mild symptoms, but for some at a higher risk, including older people and those with chronic illness, it can cause more severe issues. Officials think the virus spreads mainly through coughs or sneezes.

But this was also an equality issue, explained Ralph. She referenced the fact that Kent is the 10th most diverse city in the US, and less affluent than some neighboring areas. The city of about 130,000 has a median household income of $68,880, according to 2018 Census data, almost $20,000 less than the city of Seattle. Kent would be seeing sick people from potentially wealthier, less diverse areas dropped off so they could recover before returning home.

“The optics of that are: we’re going to push this down to south county because they matter less,” she said.

In response to the concern voiced over this quarantine site, Gallagher told the Guardian that King county staff would be continuing their outreach efforts and working to answer questions from local leaders, business owners and community members.

“We’re confident we’re going to be able to answer all those questions and continue our aggressive and coordinated response in the outbreak,” he said.

Officials said they would also be setting up modular housing throughout King county to provide dozens more people, especially those who are homeless, with a place to stay and recover from coronavirus.

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