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Mayor Durkan talks increased COVID-19 concerns and SPD crowd control in ‘virtual town hall’

Following a weekend of heavy-handed Seattle Police crowd control on Capitol Hill and with COVID-19 numbers rising, Mayor Jenny Durkan held her sixth “virtual town hall” since the start of the pandemic, this time to hear from residents of Southeast and Central Seattle neighborhoods including Capitol Hill and the Central District. City officials responded to citizen questions about the police’s continued use of aggressive crowd control tactics at protests and announced plans to increase coronavirus testing in the coming weeks.

South Seattle and the Central District have seen some of the highest COVID-19 rates in the city, with King County reporting 8.8 positive tests per 1000 residents in South Park and higher numbers extending into South King County.

Tuesday, the Washington State Department of Health released its latest “situational report” showing the outbreak continues to grow in the state and hospitalizations and deaths are now on rise.

“What we do know is that our BIPOC communities, our communities of color, are particularly disproportionately impacted,” said Patty Hayes, director of King County Public Health, on the systemic health and social inequities contributing to BIPOC communities having more “chronic conditions and the inability to work from home.”

Hoping to expand testing, the city opened two new free testing sites in Aurora and SODO in partnership with the fire department in June. Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said Monday night the city is now looking for locations to open testing clinics in South Seattle and West Seattle

“We are seeing the COVID numbers — they have quadrupled since we began to open the economy a little bit [in early June] and this is the problem in a pandemic: we know people need to get back to work, we know how traumatizing it is to be isolated and yet the minute we open the economy, we knew the spread would happen,” Hayes said.

Durkan said Monday night Seattle is in the middle of three unprecedented crises disproportionately affecting BIPOC communities: a public health emergency, economic turmoil and a “civil rights reckoning.”

Jason Johnson, Seattle Human Services director, pointed to success in creating around 400 new beds for homeless people to move from dense, congregate shelters into socially-distanced community centers and hotels where “COVID-19 transmissions have been flat,” although the South Seattle Emerald recently reported on Seattle Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda’s concern over there not being enough funding available for non-congregate shelters.

Seattle Police Department spokesperson Chris Fisher, filling in for Chief Carmen Best due to an “urgent issue,” stood by SPD’s use of pepper spray and blast balls over the weekend once protests were declared a “riot” while noting any officer misconduct would be reviewed by the Office of Police Accountability.

“It’s true that officers have been asked to pick up too many pieces from failed systems and if we could better support and better manage those systems, officers will have less to do,” he said. “They can focus on those truly emergency situations.”

Wednesday, the Seattle City Council will renew its debate on addressing #defundSPD goals as its budget committee holds its final meeting before Monday’s major vote on rebalancing the city’s spending plan for 2020.

Although a Seattle City Council majority has committed to the long-term goals of defunding SPD by 50%, Durkan maintained again Monday night that this would lead to a large-scale layoff jeopardizing public safety.

“Chief Best and I have made very clear that we don’t believe you can have a drastic cut of 50% this year or next without impairing community safety for everybody,” she said.

Beyond the rhetoric, the council is considering surgical cuts and transitions that could start SPD on a path toward a true change in the way the city is policed.

Durkan did express support for moving 911 calls from SPD to civilian control, a proposition presented to the city council by Decriminalize Seattle at the beginning of the month, and for building up nonprofits like Community Passageways and Rainier Beach Action Coalition. She cited the success of the city’s Health One team that pairs social workers with specially trained firefighters to respond to non-emergency downtown and Capitol Hill 911 calls.

“If we’re going to reimagine what policing is, we need the department to also reflect that and there’s some jobs in the department that don’t need to be connected to law enforcement like the 911 call center or parking enforcement officers,” Durkan said.

Durkan reminded residents of the city’s $300 million budget hole for this year and said a similar budget hole is likely for next year as the city combats COVID-19. Responding to a question on supporting the economy and preventing evictions, Durkan said she is working to extend the city’s halt on evictions in alignment with the state, partner with organizations to offer rent relief and continue the city’s grocery voucher program.

“Not only [do] a large part of these resources end up going to communities in South Seattle because that’s where the need is the greatest, but they end up going to communities that are either Black communities or other communities of color” she said.

Tuesday, meanwhile state health officials expressed concerns about the spread of COVID-19 this summer:

COVID-19 transmission continued to grow across the state as of early July. Best estimates place the reproductive number (the estimated number of new people each COVID-19 patient will infect) above one in eastern and western Washington. The goal is a reproductive number well below one, which would mean the number of people getting COVID-19 is declining. While the estimated reproductive numbers are lower than they were in last week’s report, COVID-19 cases are continuing to grow.

Officials said Tuesday that King County appears to an area of the state where cases are possibly showing signs of decreasing or, at least, reaching a plateau. “It’s difficult to tell at this stage whether these numbers reflect true decreases, or if delays in testing are impacting case count,” the state’s update reads.

Of major concern is the fact that the recent concentration of new cases in young adults has continued to spread into younger and older age groups.

“As noted in last week’s report, this trend in age distribution reflects a similar trend in Florida, where a high concentration of cases in young adults spread broadly into other age groups,” the update reads.

The state also reports hospitalizations are increasing across most age groups with deaths continuing to rise in eastern Washington, and — they warn — deaths also appear to be increase in western Washington for the first time since March.

UPDATE: Durkan announced Tuesday afternoon that federal agents sent to Seattle have been “demobilized” —

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