Will the $58 million COVID-19 relief package the council passed be enough as we lock down again?
Will the $58 million COVID-19 relief package the council passed be enough as we lock down again? LESTER BLACK

With new COVID-19 restrictions going into effect tonight and lasting through at least Dec. 14, Seattle faces yet another economic downturn, as well as another toilet paper shortage if people don't get a fucking grip.

Luckily, the Seattle City Council prepared for the worst when it included a COVID-19 relief package in the rebalanced budget. Unluckily, the council reduced the relief package by around $30 million after the mayor vetoed the budget.

"There's no indication we’ll have any help from a divided Congress at this point," Councilmember Teresa Mosqueda said during Monday's council briefing. Unless the Republican-controlled Senate passes another COVID-19 relief bill, responding to the coming economic crisis will fall squarely on municipal and state governments. And though Gov. Jay Inslee announced a plan to distribute another $50 million in "grants and loans" from federal funds to help struggling businesses, he also admitted he knew it "wasn't enough."

Over the summer, the council set aside millions of dollars in emergency reserve funds for COVID-19 relief and worked out a plan to refill the reserves with money raised from the newly-passed JumpStart Seattle payroll tax. Originally, Mosqueda and the council identified $86 million for COVID relief in the 2020 rebalanced budget. The relief money would pay for rental assistance, small business support, expanding grocery vouchers, and more. But, Mayor Jenny Durkan vetoed the budget. The council overturned the veto easily. However, in order to compromise with Durkan (since several council members believed Durkan would simply refuse not to spend council-allocated dollars), the council scaled back the relief package to $57 million "to make sure something got passed," Mosqueda said.

The $57 million of the emergency reserve money will be spread out as follows:

  • $22 million for rent assistance and homeless shelters
  • $12 million for grocery vouchers for immigrants and refugees
  • $10 million for small business assistance
  • $9 million for grocery vouchers
  • $2 million for child care assistance
  • $2 million for affordable housing providers, mortgage counseling, and foreclosure prevention
  • After the council approved the new relief money, Mosqueda said the council received calls "for more." The 2021 budget package, which the council will finalize this week and vote on next week, addresses several COVID-related concerns. For instance, the council is moving forward with Councilmember Dan Strauss's plan to expand food access through a $1.8 million influx to the Fresh Bucks grocery voucher program.

    The council's budget package also adds back around $35 million to the city's emergency funds in the event Seattle requires more relief. The mayor's budget proposal plus the council's 2020 rebalanced package drained the emergency funds, which held $128 million at the beginning of 2020, to just $3 million. The council can tap the nearly $40 million in those coffers if the things get especially bleak.

    "Your city has been working to make sure there’s additional support for small businesses, those facing unemployment, facing potential eviction, and folks not able to pay their rent and folks who are concerned about putting food on their table," Mosqueda said. "We’re committed to standing up if Congress doesn’t."

    For now, Durkan hasn't announced any new relief dollars or strategies for the city. Her office is keeping me in the loop if that changes. In the meantime, Durkan's webpage contains a handy-dandy list of available community resources.

    Starting Monday night, Washingtonians won't be able to gather indoors with anyone outside their household, outdoor gatherings (brrr...) have to be limited to five people or fewer, all indoor retail will be capped at 25% occupancy, and gyms are canceled (as are museums, movie theaters, and anything else that's fun and indoors). Restrictions banning indoor restaurant seating and limiting outdoor restaurant seating to parties of five or fewer go into effect on Wednesday.

    "There are science and public health-based reasons for why these need to go into effect," Council President Lorena Gonzalez said. "Those of course don’t mitigate the real impact this will have on our economy and on our workers and on our small businesses, particularly in the restaurant industry, throughout Seattle."

    Gonzalez said she understood the impact of the restrictions on a personal level since her husband manages a Seattle restaurant and her family "will be once again facing unemployment in our own household." Gonzalez and Councilmember Tammy Morales will participate in an "emergency meeting" of the Small Business Council this afternoon to hear small business concerns. The meeting isn't viewable by the public.

    Of course, the point of the restrictions is to control the spread of the virus. You remember the whole "flatten the curve" ethos of the early pandemic? Yeah, we're back there, except now we're in the eighth month of the pandemic, the days are shorter and rainier, and it's the time of the year when you'd really like to see your family. Councilmember Lisa Herbold urged people only to celebrate Thanksgiving with "a small dinner with the people you live with." Live alone? Herbold suggested doing a virtual dinner.

    Unfortunately, we can't balance stopping the spread of COVID-19 with how badly you'd like to tell off your racist uncle in between bites of turkey leg.