OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday imposed a statewide moratorium on evictions of residential tenants, saying no person should be forced from their home as the COVID-19 outbreak worsens.
A major unemployment crisis is unfolding after Inslee, like other governors, ordered the closure of many businesses and imposed restrictions on others this week, in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Inslee’s temporary ban on evictions was motivated by concerns that freshly unemployed people may be unable to pay the rent and become homeless.
It is one of several steps the state is taking to provide a lifeline to residents, workers and businesses.
“We know that we are heading for some really choppy economic waters,” Inslee said, “and like when we face any squall, we know that we’re going to get through that squall and that storm. But it is going to be tough while we do that.”
Washington is a major hot spot in the U.S. and has led the nation in deaths. Statewide, there have been more than 1,180 confirmed COVID-19 cases and at least 66 fatalities since the outbreak began in January, according to the state Department of Health.
On Wednesday, Day 58 of the Snohomish Health District’s response to the outbreak, administrator Shawn Frederick said the virus “has and continues to grow rapidly.”
As of that morning, Frederick told the Board of Health at a special noon meeting, there were 328 confirmed or probable cases of COVID-19 in the county, including six deaths. Forty six people were in home isolation and 62 were hospitalized, about 60 percent of those at Providence Regional Medical Center Everett, 30 percent at Swedish Edmonds hospital and the rest elsewhere.
Frederick said the department’s two full-time and one part-time epidemiologists continue to work seven days a week going through hundreds of cases, each of which can take a full day to investigate.
The district has received assistance from several agencies, Frederick said.
The state health department provided help with epidemiology and increasing the number of people available to do case investigations. The National Centers for Disease Control and Prevention sent two physicians to offer suggestions for improving protections in long-term care facilities.
Still, Frederick said the district faces severe shortages. In the two hours before the meeting, he said he’d heard from three dental facilities that were closing due to a lack of personal protective equipment.
“Expect to hear more of the same as time continues,” he told the board.
The board voted unanimously to streamline its decision-making process to keep up with the fast-spreading virus, delegating approval authority to its executive committee on issues including temporary modifications to the organizational structure, communications, non-budgeted expenses up to $100,000 and other time-sensitive matters. The committee already had been approving emergency medical supplies and capital purchases exceeding $50,000 and some contracting services.
Only one of the 15 board members, Everett City Councilman Scott Bader, attended the meeting in person at the district’s nearly deserted headquarters at 3020 Rucker Avenue. Others participated by telephone. Bottles of hand sanitizer sat in front of Bader and the four staff members in attendance.
At his press coference in Olympia, Inslee shook off questions about whether Washingtonians will soon be ordered to shelter in place, or what next steps people in the state could expect.
“Listen, that is a futile thing to think about,” he said. “Today we’re making decisions to help people and their economic conditions, and we can’t just try to speculate what may happen 30, 40, 60 days from now. It’s just a futile exercise of chasing our tail.”
The press conference came on the heels of a near-shutdown of the U.S.-Canadian border ordered by leaders of both nations.
“I want to make clear, this is not just a Canadian problem,” Inslee said. “This is not just an American problem. It is not just a Chinese problem. It is a problem for all humanity.”
On Wednesday afternoon, Inslee focused on economic relief in the state.
Under the governor’s Wednesday order, landlords are barred from evicting someone who fails to pay rent on time. It’s in effect for 30 days. Landlords are prohibited from issuing a 20-day notice for unlawful occupancy unless they can demonstrate it’s necessary to ensure the health and safety of the tenant or others.
Law enforcement may not enforce eviction orders based solely on nonpayment of rent under the measures announced by the governor. This would exclude circumstances such as the commission of a crime on the premises or nuisance issues, according to the governor’s office.
Even before Inslee’s announcement at a news conference Wednesday, several cities, including Everett, enacted emergency measures to halt residential evictions of tenants who are unable to pay the rent.
Soon some Small Business Administration funds could be coming to landlords, depending on the size of their business, Inslee said. But the first priority, the governor said, was to prevent people from becoming homeless in the midst of a raging public health crisis.
The governor urged public utilities to suspend disconnect fees for nonpayment, waive late fees for customers who are out of work and offer them payment plans. Several utilities, including the Snohomish County Public Utility District and Puget Sound Energy, have already taken some or all of those steps.
Inslee also waived the one-week waiting period to receive unemployment insurance, to get money in Washingtonians’ pockets faster. The state has seen a “tsunami of demand” for unemployment help, said Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the state Employment Security Department.
Unemployment applications saw about a 150% spike last week, and updated numbers for this week were still being compiled Wednesday.
Meanwhile, there had been more than a 500% increase in applications from businesses for the SharedWork Program, where businesses can reduce employee hours while keeping them working for partial wage replacement.
The governor announced up to $5 million in micro-grants for small businesses facing the threat of closure due to COVID-19. The state Department of Commerce will coordinate an application process.
In related news Wednesday:
• President Donald Trump said that the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development will suspend foreclosures and evictions from public housing for the next 60 days.
• Inslee said he had not seen the specifics of a Trump stimulus plan that could send checks directly to millions of Americans. But the governor said people need money now, not later.
“This is a moment to go big and go fast, and to be bold,” Inslee said. “When you have such a shock to our economy — which we know we’re experiencing — it is not a time for timidity or wrangling.”
• The U.S. Navy could soon send a 1,000-bed hospital ship to Washington to serve non-COVID-19 patients, a move which would enable area hospitals to provide care for more residents diagnosed with the deadly coronavirus.
Inslee said Wednesday he had asked to have the ship brought to Puget Sound, because the region’s medical infrastructure will likely be strained sooner than anywhere else in the nation.
Inslee expects the ship’s crew would treat “more normal” medical emergencies, and free up hospital beds for use to combat COVID-19.
The governor made the request in writing Tuesday.
“It is clear that our medical capacity is the first to be impacted and is now the most severely challenged in the nation,” he wrote to the president. “We anticipate that our hospitals will be in crisis by the end of this month.”
Members of Washington’s congressional delegation planned to send a letter to the president asking him to deploy the Mercy here. It wasn’t immediately known how quickly either ship could set sail. USNI News reported seeing the Mercy in a maintenance yard in San Diego.
Each ship is manned by military medical personnel, requiring at least a few days to mobilize active duty and reserve forces.
Inslee concluded his letter to Trump saying he could “think of no better way to signal to the residents of Washington that their Federal government is fully committed to their health and survival than the sight of a large U.S. Navy hospital ship dropping anchor in the harbor at Seattle.”