Motel Converted Into Quarantine Site Sparks Controversy

Mar 8, 2020
Originally published on March 8, 2020 9:39 am
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LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

To the Seattle suburbs now and the ripple effects of the coronavirus. Kirkland, Wash., is at the heart of the outbreak. That's the location of an assisted care facility where most of the U.S. deaths associated with COVID-19 are so far. In another suburb about 20 miles away, a motel is being converted into a quarantine center. And as NPR's Leila Fadel reports, the move has infuriated the community and the mayor.

JESSICA SALTER: My name is Jessica, and I work at Bri's Beans, a coffee stand near the quarantine site.

LEILA FADEL, BYLINE: When Jessica Salter says near the site, she means directly across the busy street from what was an Econo Lodge motel until a few days ago. The yellow-and-red sign that dominated her view from the drive-up window at the coffee stand is now painted up pitch-black.

SALTER: I think it's horrible that they would be doing this. I feel like because this is a low-income area, there's a lot of low-income apartments and housing - I feel like that's a part of why they've decided to do it.

FADEL: King County bought the motel after it declared a state of emergency. Almost all of Washington state's COVID-19 deaths have been in King County. That includes Seattle, the cities of Kirkland in the east and Kent, where the motel is, in the south. And that motel is in the middle of the city, off the highway on a main thoroughfare. Dana Ralph is the mayor.

DANA RALPH: We found out through a third party, a concerned resident, that as one of the tools to fight the spread of the coronavirus, that King County would be purchasing a hotel.

FADEL: A hotel in Kent. When she reached out to the county executive, Dow Constantine, she says he told her he planned on calling.

RALPH: But that's frustrating, right?

FADEL: Ralph says she's not saying not in her city's backyard, but she wants to understand the plan to make sure that there is no outbreak in Kent.

RALPH: It's not a mandatory quarantine. So if they bring someone here and put them in this - what was a hotel - at any point in time, they can get up and leave. And that means they can go across the street to the 7-Eleven or the bowling alley or to the bus stop.

FADEL: Ralph filed a temporary restraining order to stop the county on Friday. The judge denied it and allowed the county to go ahead on a restricted basis until they go back to court this week.

RALPH: And there's been no coordination, and we have not been able to get King County Public Health to articulate their plan for keeping everyone safe.

FADEL: All Ralph's gotten from the county, she says, are three phone calls. Meanwhile, she says, intended or not, the message to her racially and ethnically mixed working-class city is clear.

RALPH: We matter less.

FADEL: In an email, Alex Fryer, the director of communications for King County Executive Dow Constantine, said the motel was selected urgently because it was the only one on the market that met Public Health's criteria - separate HVAC in each unit and separate doors. Fryer says the county let the city know as soon as possible once it was closing with the property owner, and it's now begun conversations about security, fencing and how provisions will be brought in. It's one of four sites across the county. And Fryer said in the email, quote, "we understand all these communities have questions and have begun outreach to answer them."

But right now, mostly, there's confusion in Kent. The motel looks the same - no fencing - and it's a block away from Ronnell Henry's apartment. He's already frustrated that the gym on his complex is closed because of the coronavirus.

RONNELL HENRY: Yeah, it's changing my routine. Like, I'm trying to keep myself healthy 'cause since I heard about that, well, it's point A to point B now, back and forth, no stops.

FADEL: He feels especially exposed because he doesn't have a car. He walks to work.

HENRY: Why can't they keep it in - what? - Kirkland? Why they bringing it here? I don't want to catch nothing.

FADEL: Right now, according to the city, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Kent. Henry worries, though, that the quarantine site will change that.

Leila Fadel, NPR News, Kent, Wash. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.