LISTEN: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan discusses the city's COVID-19 response | KNKX

LISTEN: Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan discusses the city's COVID-19 response

May 4, 2020

As state leaders lay out a post-pandemic plan, Washington’s largest city is also preparing. Seattle faces several challenges in this phase of the crisis, including fatigue from city residents remaining at home.

"It has been a challenge, but I will say, I have been so inspired and impressed by how people have complied," Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan told KNKX in an interview. "So many people have lost their jobs, lost their businesses. It's difficult on people to not be able to come together with friends and family."

The city also faces a potential budget deficit up to $300 million. The city council is proposing a new payroll tax on large business to help fund coronavirus relief efforts, along with housing and homelessness initiatives.

Durkan sat down with KNKX Morning Edition host Kirsten Kendrick via Zoom to talk about the state of the city's COVID-19 response, including the new tax. Listen to their conversation above or read the transcript below. Both have been edited for length and clarity.

JENNY DURKAN, Mayor of Seattle: I'm very supportive – and have been for many, many years – of changing Washington state's very regressive tax system. I think it's unfair that the wealthiest among us are able to shift their tax burden to those who can afford it the least. 

On the current tax proposal, I know there's a number of things that other council members are looking at. I think it's really important for people to understand that there is no tax that we would pass today that would help us in this budget crisis. Even the new payroll tax that's being proposed or a tax like it probably would not be collected for at least two years. And that's assuming that there's no court challenges to it.

So I think it's really important for people to understand that the discussions around our budget deficit today are distinct from any discussions about how we get more fair taxation for the City of Seattle. We have to get through this budget crisis using the tools we have in front of us, unfortunately.

KIRSTEN KENDRICK, host: What are the tools you have in front of you? 

DURKAN: So we have a range of things. First, at the beginning of this crisis, I put in place a number of things. We froze hiring unless it was COVID-related. We canceled all non-essential travel and we limited a number of other expenses. And by doing that, we were able to create some buffer.

We also have a rainy day fund, an emergency fund that we will look to tap in some fashion. We're in line to get federal assistance in a number of areas where we're spending money for COVID response. We'll get reimbursement. We don't know the exact amounts of that yet, but we will know the range very quickly. And so we'll use those resources as well.

So we will balance the budget, and we're doing everything we can to assure that in doing that, we don't cut those very programs that people in Seattle need the most today.

KENDRICK: You were speaking of the coronavirus response, and I wanted to find out the status of tests and personal protective equipment in Seattle. As mayor, what can you do to make sure the city has enough tests and supplies?

DURKAN: We are looking at getting our own independent sources for both of those things. We've been able to obtain personal protection equipment both through the state and FEMA systems, but also through some independent channels. And we're trying to create some buffer there because we know this will be continuing for some period of time.

On testing, we want to also get our access to independent ability to have tests. Right now, we rely solely on what we're given by the state Department of Health to King County public health. And in order to reopen our businesses, I think the city itself is going to have to have access to more testing.

KENDRICK: Have you found that cities are actually having to compete right now for the tests and supplies?

DURKAN: Yes. What is happening right now is not in anyone's best interest. You have state versus state, city versus city, competing since the beginning of this pandemic. The only way to avoid that is for the national government to do what it needs to do, which is to turn to the manufacturing capabilities of America, the innovation, and harness that to require companies to manufacture what we need.

KENDRICK: The mayor of Los Angeles recently announced that tests will be available to anyone who wants one there. And I know city comparisons aren't apples-to-apples, but is that something that you can see happening with Seattle and King County working together eventually?

DURKAN: If we could get access to the testing kits, I think that is where we would like to be. But honestly, I do not see that happening for a period of time. Our access to testing has been subpar since the beginning of this pandemic. Today, we lack the ability to test the people that need to be tested.

KENDRICK: So why is the city's access to testing limited?

DURKAN: It has been really something that has been such an incredible challenge and seems so counterintuitive. It starts because there's not enough tests in America, and then the tests that are all available are rationed in a way. The tests come into the state Department of Health. They control the distribution of them. They distribute them to the King County department of health, who then decides countywide how to distribute them.

We are in this crisis because we missed it. The virus was spreading in our community and we did not know that it was because there was not adequate testing in place. By the time it raised its head, it was too late to take the steps you would normally take to limit the the virus from spreading. And so our only option was to shut down. That's why when you keep hearing about testing, testing, testing, it's going to be critical for us moving forward. Because if we don't have enough testing, we will be blind to the spread of the virus. And then our only option is to lock people down again.

KENDRICK: Well, building on that, a lot of people are thinking about what the new normal will be once this pandemic eventually ends. What do you think that new normal will look like in Seattle? What will stick? 

DURKAN: So I think it's going to be in phases, and I think that normal will shift slowly, and it will always be defined by this virus until we have a vaccine. So I think that we will have social distancing in some manner, at least through the end of this year and probably into next year. I think many companies and employers are going to continue to have significant numbers of employees telecommute and use technology for meetings.

KENDRICK: Looking further ahead, do you see any permanent changes coming as a result of this experience we're all going through?

DURKAN: I do. I think that there will be an a reassessment in a whole range of ways. I think every person is going to look at their life differently and make personal choices. I think government's going to have to do its business differently. I think businesses will do their work and business differently. I think it will have lasting impacts that we can't even foresee now.

Some of those impacts I think we should be very intentional about. It's going to be a struggle in some regards because the city's resources are going to be very diminished. So we're really going to have to have some conversations with community to say, here are our priorities, here's what we stand for, here are our values. These are the things that we need to do going forward. And then we have to find a way to fund it all.