Officials in King County, which is dealing with the worst COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, announced this week that it is buying the motel for $4 million. The deal is expected to close on Friday and officials hope to have the first patients in within days.
But not everyone is putting out the welcome mat. The EconoLodge is a two-story, 84-room motel just off a state highway in Kent, about 20 miles (32 km) south of Seattle. The rooms' doors open to the outside, rather than to a central hallway, reducing the likelihood of contact between the patients. The individual heating-and-cooling units reduce the chance of germs spreading through a ventilation system.
“Maybe you're a patient who is out of the hospital, out of the active treatment phase, but you have someone who is high-risk, elderly or a pregnant spouse at home, so you can't go there — this would be a place for someone like that,” said county spokesman Chase Gallagher. “The other category would be maybe someone who is homeless and can't go to a shelter.”
The motel is part of the efforts officials are taking in an epicenter of the outbreak in the U.S. There have been 70 confirmed cases in Washington state, most of them in the greater Seattle area, where researchers say the virus was apparently circulating undetected for weeks. Eleven people have died — most of them residents of Life Care Center, a nursing home in the suburb of Kirkland.
Officials are also setting up isolation units in trailers on public parking lots or other land. But the county's plan for the motel has drawn opposition from local leaders. Kent Mayor Dana Ralph said officials didn't notify her about their intent, and that while the city has spent money and time to improve its appearance, visitors and residents will now be greeted by a quarantine facility as they enter town.
“We are concerned the coronavirus is simply a pretext for the siting of a long-term quarantine facility here in Kent," Ralph said at a news conference Wednesday. “They are replicating and bringing a situation similar in scale to the Life Care Center of Kirkland and dropping it off in the middle of Kent.”
She called it an “equity issue” that patients from wealthier, less-diverse parts of the county would be brought to Kent. Kent Police Chief Rafael Padilla called it an “ill-advised and dangerous plan.” He said the patients would be under a voluntary quarantine: “At any point a patient can simply walk into our community and spread the virus.”
He called on the county to ensure that it had the security presence and authority to keep people in the motel if necessary. State health officials say that they expect most people to cooperate with isolation or quarantine requests, but that local authorities do have the power to order such conditions if necessary.
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee said Thursday it was important for the government to keep local officials apprised, but also to care for vulnerable patients. “Obviously it’s important for us to talk to local communities about those concerns," the Democrat said. "But, look, we can’t ship Washingtonians to Mars here. We need to care for them. They’re our fellow citizens and we need to find places to do this.”
AP correspondent Rachel La Corte in Olympia, Washington, contributed.