By Erica C. Barnett
The city of Seattle has no current plans to open “smoke shelters” to protect people experiencing homelessness from the dangerous respiratory effects of smoke rolling in from wildfires in Eastern Washington, Oregon, and California, despite visibly smoky air that has burned eyes and left ashy residue on windowsills across Seattle for the past several days. Mayor Jenny Durkan has also declined to open cooling centers in recent weeks, on the grounds that the risk of COVID-19 outweighs the risk of dehydration, heat exhaustion or stroke, and hygiene-related illnesses that can crop up in hot weather.
On Monday, Durkan tweeted that Seattle residents should minimize their exposure to wildfire smoke by closing all their windows and doors, turning their central air conditioning to recirculating mode, and turning off fans that vent outside. The mayor’s tips included no suggestions for people living outdoors, who don’t have doors to close, much less air conditioning or even fans to mitigate temperatures that have soared into the 90s this summer, and are supposed to hit 91 this afternoon.
According to King County Public Health, the air over the last several days has fluctuated between “unhealthy for everyone” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups”—those with underlying conditions such as heart disease, diabetes, respiratory ailments, or a history of strokes. In previous years, the city has opened “smoke shelters” so that people living outdoors, who are more likely than the general population to have underlying conditions that make them sensitive to smoke inhalation, can escape the smoke and heat. Last year, for example, Durkan touted the installation of new HVAC systems at five city buildings used as shelters on smoky days, calling it a timely response to the “new normal” of climate change.
This year, however, the city has done nothing to provide such spaces. According to mayoral spokeswoman Kamaria Hightower, the city has been “reviewing its response options for potential wildfire smoke to ensure that they align with social distancing requirements.” Currently, Hightower adds, many of the buildings that the city would use as smoke shelters (or cooling centers, for that matter) are either closed (libraries, most community centers) or already being repurposed as shelters or day care facilities (Fisher Pavilion, Exhibition Hall). Of course, the city has the authority to open buildings that are currently closed, including the senior centers, community centers, libraries, and other city buildings that are ordinarily used as temporary smoke shelters and cooling centers.
Hightower said the city is taking its cues from Seattle/King County Public Health about when and whether to open temporary spaces for people living outdoors to get out of the heat and smoke. “We are updating our operational plans should Public Health – Seattle & King County recommend that the benefits of establishing congregate healthy air centers outweigh the health risks of COVID-19 based on the severity of the forecast.” If that happens, Hightower said, the city has “access to a range of facilities if wildfire smoke conditions significantly deteriorated and became a greater health risk to vulnerable individuals’—for example, if the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency issued “a prolonged red zone air quality forecast that went on for days/weeks and Public Health’s concerns for air quality outweighs the concern for the spread of COVID-19 which can be deadly to those at high risk.”
Homeless advocates, and at least one city council member, aren’t buying it. Alison Eisinger, director of the Seattle/King County Coalition on Homelessness, said the city should have risen to the challenge of providing safe, socially distanced shelter months ago, before wildfires and extreme heat added new urgency to the crisis. “The public health threats to people who are homeless of being exposed to extreme weather conditions are real,” she said, “and the threats to people being indoors with a highly transmissible disease are real. That doesn’t mean that local government gets a pass on figuring out how to help reduce risk and protect people.”
Homeless advocates have been arguing since the beginning of the pandemic that the best way to keep people experiencing homelessness from infecting each other is to put them in individual rooms, a solution the Durkan administration has steadfastly resisted. Even failing that, Eisinger said the city needs to figure out a way to deal with extreme weather conditions before this winter, when flu season and cold, rainy weather will collide with the ongoing epidemic, making it even more
critical to get people into warm, hygienic spaces. “The Centers for Disease Control and our local and state public health departments are quite clear that individual rooms that allow people to be protected from exposure, as well as from the risk of contracting COVID-19 are advisable, effective, and should be increased,” Eisinger said.
On Wednesday, council member Teresa Mosqueda said she had just returned from a short walk and was coughing despite wearing an N95 mask, which filters out most smoke particulates. “I can’t imagine sleeping unsheltered” in the smoke, she said.
“We have hotels [and] motels sitting unoccupied with AC and individual rooms; we have tiny houses that are ready to be stood up,” Mosqueda said. “There is no excuse to not house more folks and use de-intensified shelter options to prevent people from getting sick from this smoke.”