Now that the pandemic has reached a level of pain and suffering that American governments feel comfortable with, the Seattle City Council has started to think about which COVID-19 protections to end, extend, or make permanent.
Disagreements about when or if the world will return to a pre-pandemic “normal” complicate these decisions, but the relationship between the state of the health crisis and the laws designed to mitigate that crisis increasingly appears disconnected. At least according to Councilmember Tammy Morales, the council has not discussed universal standards for ending or extending certain pandemic-era laws.
Toward the beginning of the pandemic, politicians and advocates adopted solemn tones when discussing the “rust” the pandemic revealed in our health care, housing, policing, and commercial systems. Rather than maintain or expand the ordinances that helped balance the power toward the most vulnerable in those systems, the council has gotten rid of them and instead extended more frivolous measures.
"Follow the science"
Over the last two years, lawmakers have told their constituents they would “follow the science” when drawing up their policy responses to the pandemic. But aligning policy goals with health metrics can prove difficult, according to professor Gerard Cangelosi, an epidemiologist at the University of Washington.
For instance, public health officials initially made policy recommendations based on coronavirus positivity rates in communities, but the rise of at-home testing decreased the utility of that data. Now, Cangelosi said, trendlines projected by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME) give lawmakers the clearest idea of the state of the pandemic. Day-to-day case rates and hospitalizations counts, less so.
The IHME 's trendlines have accurately predicted levels of community spread going back to April of 2020. As of March 25, the model shows a dip in case count from Feb 6 until May 4, when another rise will likely begin to mount.
What the council kept
So, does the council look to IHME’s models to determine the future of policy? Not really.
While the exact future for every local COVID protection remains uncertain, the council seems most excited to keep policies that make life easier for business owners and less excited to keep policies that protect workers.
For instance, during the pandemic, Councilmember Dan Strauss, ever the supporter of the “vibrant neighborhood,” introduced two ordinances to loosen restrictions on businesses. One eased permitting regulations so restaurant owners could establish streeteries, which opened up more outdoor dining options. Another changed land use codes so entrepreneurs like the guy who started Yonder Cider could “incubate their next great idea” from the safety of their own garages.
After the new laws took effect, customers filled Ballard Avenue street cafes – even in the winter – and, to Strauss’s knowledge, no one has complained about neighbors cooking up small businesses in their garages. Given the positive response, Strauss pushed to extend the rules, and he wants to make both changes permanent.
But health metrics and “the science” did not drive these decisions. According to Strauss and Morales, the council kept them because everyone liked them.
“I am looking at what has worked well, what has not worked well, what needs to change, and how do we codify the things that have gone well and have benefited society. And then what more work do we need to do for the things that either didn't go well or that are ending,” Strauss said in a phone interview.
The opposition hardly fought either measure. Some restaurant owners initially worried about street cafes eating up valuable parking spaces. Councilmember Sara Nelson thought the council ought to run “Bring Business Home” by the business improvement associations, though she still voted to support the extension in committee.
But not every COVID-era law garnered that kind of universal buy-in.
What the council tossed
On Dec. 13 of last year, the council ended hazard pay for grocery workers, suggesting that the “hazard” of a deadly respiratory virus was over.
A week after they voted to end the policy, the Omicron variant exploded. Former Mayor Jenny Durkan vetoed the council’s decision to scrap the pay boost, and the council reversed course. In the meeting where the council voted to uphold the Mayor’s veto and to reinstate hazard pay, Councilmember Lisa Herbold said the council “could not have known” the extent of Omicron’s impact.
Cangelosi said the IMHE models called Omicron “really, really well.”
“Their projections were right more often than they were wrong, and so, a policymaker could do a lot worse than following them,” he added.
However, during December, the IMHE reworked its model in the wake of the new variant and did not release projections. Still, on Dec. 2, IHME Executive Director Dr. Christopher J.L. Murray predicted Omicron would be more transmissible than previous variants such as Delta and less susceptible to defenses such as the vaccine and immunity from past infections. Murray remained cautious in what he called “critical uncertainty.” He did not throw up his hands and declare that the world had returned to normal.
The council never referenced specific metrics that guided their decision, but Morales said the decision hinged on case counts and hospitalizations. Mosqueda, who always stressed the measure would be temporary, said that if the COVID-19 situation changed, then the council would revisit the pay raise.
Strauss, who joined the majority in ending and then reinstating hazard pay, said his daily checks of the King County COVID-19 dashboard’s current case counts and hospitalizations informed his policymaking. But Cangelosi said those indicators are generally not very helpful to use when creating new policies.
“We were operating with the best data possible, and that best data possible was telling us that we were four months out of a spike, and it was unclear if the next spike was coming,” Strauss said. “And then within the next week, that data had changed significantly enough that it demonstrated that we were entering a spike.”
Regardless, unless the council rules otherwise, grocery workers will return to their pre-pandemic wages after the end of the civil emergency. According to the Mayor’s Office, there are no imminent plans to end the civil emergency, but Morales anticipates those conversations will begin this summer.
Although grocery workers and Councilmember Kshama Sawant advocated for hazard pay to continue even after the pandemic – as these jobs are “permanently hazardous,” to quote UFCW 3000 Secretary-Treasurer Joe Mizrahi – other stakeholders, such as the grocers and UFCW 3000, continue to pressure the council to end the ordinance.
The union would prefer to pursue a blanket approach rather than the current city-by-city protections, and stores argue the pay hike cuts into profits. But socialists and some nonunion grocery store workers want the council to continue the program.
Crystal Hall, an associate professor who researches policy designs at the Evans School of Public Policy & Governance, said that business interests and labor unions enjoy greater influence over lawmakers than average working people because they can more easily leverage money and coordinate lobbying.
Given this pressure from unions and businesses, one day the majority of the council will once again congratulate themselves on hazard pay’s long run and then regurgitate similar talking points to justify its end while streeteries and “Bring Business Home” outlive the civil emergency order.
More stuff the council tossed
While the council has not set a date to end hazard pay, on Feb. 22 it ruled that the city should end its ban on evictions despite the fact that housing advocates projected that the need for rental assistance would outpace supply. What’s more, the Washington State Court of Appeals struck down the strongest of the council’s protections for renters – a six-month pandemic hardship defense, which would essentially extend the moratorium for six months after its end.
After Mayor Bruce Harrell ended the moratorium, Sawant introduced a proposal to extend it until the end of the civil emergency, arguing that “either there is an emergency or there is not.” The majority of the council decided there was no longer an emergency, and so the majority voted to end it.
Strauss initially voted yes on an amendment to extend the moratorium for a few more weeks, but ultimately voted no with the majority. Over the phone, he explained his reasoning for squashing the protections: If people could go to work again, then they could pay rent again.
Cangelosi agreed with that line of reasoning. If the trendlines he trusts predicted a huge surge, then lawmakers might have wanted to consider a shutdown of the service industry and an extension of the moratorium. But at the moment, Cangelosi said, “the COVID situation is as good as it's ever going to get.”
Even though the council chose to keep uncontroversial policies to help small business but then rip off some of its pandemic-era bandaids, Hall said policies such as hazard pay and the eviction moratorium were just that: bandaids.
“What I see with so many of these policies is we're trying to treat the symptoms of things that are much bigger and much deeper,” Hall said.
But it’s not over
Speaking of treating the symptoms of much bigger problems: Early on in the pandemic, physical distancing rules caused shelters to dramatically cut capacity, which made unsheltered homelessness more visible.
Councilmember Andrew Lewis said the JustCARE service-provider program was born out of the pressing need to replace the city’s Navigation Team – a group of police officers and social workers who offered shelter referrals to people sleeping outside – with service providers who could better interrupt homelessness rather then simply sweeping these people from block to block.
In a meeting earlier this month, Lewis updated the Public Assets and Homelessness Committee on the program’s work over the past year and a half. JustCARE brought its approach to 14 unsanctioned homeless encampments, reaching about 300 people ahead of city sweeps.
Despite its relative success in housing those suffering chronic homelessness, JustCARE is the next pandemic program on the chopping block, as its one-time federal funding is set to lapse in June. Lewis argues the program is worth saving.
“I think what we're starting to see is that some of these COVID-era programs aren't necessarily COVID-era programs at all, but instead are responding to some fundamental inequities in our society that go deeper than just what we've experienced during the pandemic,” he said over the phone.
For Lewis, JustCARE is a step toward a more compassionate approach to homelessness. “It would be a shame to let that slip through our fingers," he said.
Though the council ended some protections for the working class, the pandemic gave council members new perspectives that will inform future legislation, said Morales.
She points to housing as one area that looks promising. After housing prices continued to soar during the pandemic, Morales and Mosqueda plan to find ways the council can help tenants buy their buildings and create co-ops when their landlord wants to sell. In the longer term, Morales said she wants to fund a social housing acquisition program similar to those in Paris and Vienna.
In the meantime, the council will continue to deliberate on which of the remaining COVID-19 era measures to keep and which to cut, largely without feeling beholden to any particular health metrics.
“I hope lawmakers think really carefully, as we come back out of the pandemic, about the opportunities to get at the root of some of these problems,” Hall said. “We have an opportunity to think about what support we need to really treat some of these underlying challenges and not just think about them as things that emerged in the wake of the pandemic.”