Community Comes Together to Question White Center Quarantine Site

words by Ari McKenna

photography by Jovelle Tomayo

Typically, democracy suffers when a state of emergency is declared, but White Center’s response to a quarantine site being prepared on an especially populous street has led to a mobilization uniting community members amidst a pandemic.

Early last week, King County declared a state of emergency as confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus began to accelerate, with six people dying from the disease north of Seattle and in Kirkland. While there had been an initial, temporary quarantine site for people traveling from China in Shoreline near the Public Health Laboratory (it has since closed), the county began announcing new sites where people could be isolated:

The first two would be in Kent and White Center.

A modular housing unit for quarantined coronavirus patients, photographed on March 9, 2020 in White Center in Seattle, Wash. More than 15,000 people signed an online petition against the coronavirus facility, created by White Center resident Chris Blado. County officials plan to open emergency isolation facilities in White Center, Kent, Interbay and North Seattle. (Photo Credit: Jovelle Tamayo)

Though it would be days before King County clarified that two other quarantine sites had been selected in Interbay and North Seattle, I venture to say that most residents of South King County were not in the least bit surprised about their top two choices–including Chris Blado, who alertly began a petition. And while the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was busy botching the first round of COVID-19 testing kits sent out to fifty states, and Governor Jay Inslee was announcing that, “We are the tip of the spear nationally on this,” many South Seattle residents wondered why it felt like, really, that spear was always pointed at us.

The White Center Quarantine/Isolation Site Formerly the site of the Wilderness Technology Alliance, The Top Hat site, just east of White Center, sits on longtime county property on Southwest 112th Street, between 1st and 4th Ave South, and on that same block are 638 units of housing. That’s right, six hundred and thirty eight units of housing on a block a little longer than four soccer fields. A solitary home nearer 1st St is the only single story building on the block; the rest are the following apartment complexes, all accessible from this block, as pictured above: -298 Units: Southside by Vintage -124 Units: Sunset Park Apartments -120 Units: Garden Pointe Apartments -49 Units: Sou’wester Apartments -46 Units: Mountain High Condominiums

Though there are reports that before the quarantine trailers arrived, there were unhoused people sleeping on the lot, for the most part it was vacant except for a single trailer–until additional trailers began showing up late last week.

Information reached even those whose apartments were adjacent to the quarantine site either at a trickle, or rudely. Some heard from neighbors, some heard about it on the news, and some were alerted by Blado’s petition–which had by then circulated widely on social media. Many residents of the Garden Pointe Apartments found out when news crews pulled up into their parking lot, and photographer Jovelle Tamayo and I filled in a few residents that we approached for an interview about what was going down on Monday.

Roger Alvarado, 19: “It’s just racist. That’s what it is…It’s just not fair. My mom’s sick over there..I don’t want that virus near her. It’s just very worrying for everyone around here. I have a little sister too. You see a lot of kids running around here…and now they can’t anymore.” Alvarado is among the 15,000 people who signed an online petition against the coronavirus facility, created by White Center resident Chris Blado. (Photo: Jovelle Tamayo)
Roscoe Glen, 42: “I just saw this in the news and they said that they’re just going to build something…I live like three floors over there, and yeah I got two kids…You know they didn’t say anything…I wish they could just warn us…Don’t get me wrong, it’s nice that the government is doing something about it, but in the middle of all this? (waves his hand at the various apartment complexes within view) Yeah, people are freaking out. I am freaking out. I am a family man.” Glen stands near his home adjacent to a planned coronavirus quarantine facility. (Photo: Jovelle Tamayo)

Community Response

On the eve of today’s King County hearing, community members met at the impressive Bethaday Community Learning Center building on the urging of five local organizers: Sameth Mell, Tony Vo, Sokha Danh, Chris Blado and Rita Aronson. It was a full house. Those in attendance included Jovelle and I’s King County District 2 King Counclimember, Girmay Zahilay, the Spanish-language television station Univision, and about 40 residents.

King County Councilmember Girmay Zahilay speaks with community members during a meeting on Monday, March 9, 2020 at Bethaday Community Learning Space in Seattle, Wash., to discuss the placement of coronavirus quarantine facilities in White Center. Residents expressed frustration about the lack of transparency during the decision-making process and crafted a list of demands to bring to the last King County Council meeting before patients are expected at the facility. More than 15,000 people signed an online petition against the coronavirus facility, created by White Center resident Chris Blado. (Photo Credit: Jovelle Tamayo)

In a meeting that lasted just over two hours, residents had ample time to raise a host of concerns, which were later collected and will be presented by the many residents who plan to air them at the council meeting today. Organizers kept the meeting sharply focused, and there was clearly a mix of experience as well as people unaccustomed to attending events like this–but for whom this issue was too close to home to ignore.

Volunteer organizer Sameth Mell, of Renton, Wash., takes notes during a community meeting on Monday, March 9, 2020 at Bethaday Community Learning Space in Seattle, Wash., to discuss the placement of coronavirus quarantine facilities in White Center. (Photo Credit: Jovelle Tamayo)

Carlos Marentes, an economist with El Comite, a local, immigrant rights organization, had this to say about the quarantine site:

“One of the first things that should have been considered is they’re putting it in a population that is much more vulnerable…And this is not information which is unknown…Health professionals–if you look at some of the literature–know that. That’s one of the first preoccupations you want to have is like are we creating a much bigger risk of infection within these populations?…And more importantly, not being able to deal with the after effects, if there is infection…there’s the economic aspects of it, the insurance, but there’s also, for example the language barriers…a lot of people didn’t know until they saw it on the local Univision channel.”

He went on to suggest other less densely populated places such as industrial areas, stadiums, unused spaces, and the port, before adding, “We just don’t buy this…why in a community that could be most vulnerable to this type of pandemic.”

Lina Thompson, a lifelong White Center resident, expresses concerns at a community meeting on Monday, March 9, 2020 at Bethaday Community Learning Space in Seattle, Wash., to discuss the placement of coronavirus quarantine facilities in White Center. Residents expressed frustration about the lack of transparency during the decision-making process and crafted a list of demands to bring to the last King County Council meeting before patients are expected at the facility.  (Photo Credit: Jovelle Tamayo)

This meeting takes place after two conference calls with local politicians, who residents say are listening, but want them to take action in some form. Girmay Zahilay, there for the entirety of the meeting, encouraged the gathering to be cohesive and united with their demands.

Maria Medina, expanded the range of areas frustrated with the county’s approach to include her neighborhood of Georgetown, “They constantly do it to Georgetown too. We don’t have a grocery store, we don’t have a community center, but we get a treatment plant?”

Zooming out further, about 800 miles south, The Grand Princess cruise ship containing potentially infected people referred to as “numbers” by the president, was slated to dock in wealthy San Francisco, but after circling the ocean for days–was at this exact moment offloading its passengers in Oakland instead.

The County Response

At a recent press conference, King County Executive Dow Constantine said, “I understand that the community [White Center] has questions as will (sic) all communities, but we are answering those questions.” Yet it’s uncertain whether he understands the depth of the concern; this was not simply knee-jerk nimby. He followed with a terse rationale for the site, “We chose that location because we own the land, the site has access to utilities and with our emergency waiver that I’ve signed, we can expedite construction.” Now don’t get me wrong, those are solid, practical reasons, but does Dow really have the bandwidth right now to consider the historical pile of distrust he would have to topple with these nuts-and-bolts “answers”–at a time when he himself is calling for the extrajudicial powers that befit a state of emergency?

It is important to acknowledge that there have been county and city officials who have already shown a high degree of responsiveness to this explosion of community concern after the county’s botched announcement. But just as neither Jay Inslee nor the University of Washington expect the president to suddenly start believing in science, local residents don’t trust that the county’s plan will be carried out with the type of flawlessness necessary to avoid a direct outbreak in their population-dense community, with a few (who would not be named) even going so far as to say that the county’s long-term priority is actually trying to use the outbreak to push through permanent facilities for the unhoused in a neighborhood that already has the deck stacked against it.

“What we are focused on is a public health emergency and nothing else…what’s happening 2-6 months down the road is not being talked about.” counters Sherry Hamilton, Communications Director for the Department of Community and Human Services for King County. Hamilton also stressed the ever important need to retain hospital beds for the seriously ill if the outbreak takes its likely course, and that, “There is no person-to-person contact between delivery of supplies and the person in quarantine.”

Lisa Herbold, councilmember for nearby Seattle District 1, weighed in, suggesting cooperation, “I believe King County Public Health must be empowered to address the crisis with all tools available to it, but that community members are right to ask for accountability for how these decisions have been made.”

Addressing neighborhood concerns from a conference call that morning about quarantined people coming and going freely from the site, Herbold said, “Though by past experience it’s rarely needed–Public Health can issue detention orders when people are uncooperative. We are also told that efforts are made to insure that people are comfortable to mitigate against a desire to leave, including telephone access to assistance.”

In theory, and if the site is well run, the surrounding population should not be in danger, despite its density, and it seems extremely important to acknowledge the responsiveness of the county to the concerns raised, and to council members McDermott, Nguyen, Zahilay and Herbold for engaging with the community. It’s also important to recognize King County Public Health for scrambling to stay ahead of this outbreak, along with the amazing nurses, ER workers and doctors working on the front lines.

Though this is a difficult time, with event cancellations abounding, concern for vulnerable elders high, and the national media attempting to paint our still-vibrant city as a ghost town, it is worth considering that one neighborhood in the south of King County speaks for the rest of us:

We will not be the county’s path of least resistance for present or future emergencies.

Unpacking the Petition Data

By the time you read this, at least 16,000 people will have signed Blado’s petition to halt the quarantine site in White Center, which is more than the amount of people living in White Center. So who are they, and where are these people from? It turns out that White Center’s slogan, Building a Global Village, is remarkably accurate: they’re from everywhere.

There’s beauty evident in the numbers, which survey starter Chris Blado–who lives 500 feet away from the site–simply harvested from the questions about where respondents are from and why they signed the survey.

Survey signers represent 72 different countries. That’s right, seventy two countries and just about every state in the United States of America. Additionally, 10,000 King County voters signed the petition–which politicians will surely note–along with about 1/5th of the entire population of White Center.

Blado adds, “There’s an equity lens, a public process lens, and at the end of the day they’re putting a coronavirus facility in the poor neighborhood. And I expect that the people who made this decision will be held accountable, electorally…and there are people from around the world who are signing this petition on behalf of their friends and relatives in White Center.”

It’s inspiring that a survey about White Center, exactly because of their tremendous wealth of diversity, drew so much support from across the nation and all over the world despite being just a sliver of Unincorporated King County, and it’s inspiring that an outbreak has united this block, reminding certain elected leaders and those north Seattlites who regularly use the names of our neighborhoods as the hollow punchlines of jokes, that communities in the South End are both robust and cosmopolitan in ways that may not have met their untrained eyes.

During the meeting last night at Bethaday, Carlos Marentes seemed to ponder aloud, “Why did it take something like this to get so many of us together?”

Ari McKenna is a Rainier Beach resident

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