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, this week ordered the closure of many businesses and imposed restrictions on others, in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus. Inslee’s temporary ban of evictions is one of several steps the state is taking to provide a lifeline to residents 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.
Public Health – Seattle & King County reported 44 new COVID-19 cases Wednesday afternoon, bringing the official case count in King County to 562. The total of confirmed deaths in King County is 56 through Tuesday, March 17.
In Snohomish County, where Washington’s first infection case was discovered, there have been more than 310 positive tests for the new coronavirus and at least six fatalities, according to the Snohomish Health District.
Inslee shook off press 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 excercise of chasing our tail.”
The press conference came on the heels of a near-shutdown of the U.S.-Canadian border by governments 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 Adminstiration funds could be coming to landlords, depending on their size, Inslee said. But the first priority, the governor said, was to prevent people from becoming homeless in the midst of a 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.
Applications for unemployment saw about a 150 percent spike last week, and updated numbers for this week were still being compiled Wednesday, said Suzi LeVine, commissioner of the state Employment Security Department.
Meanwhile, there had been more than a 500 percent
The governor announced up to $5 million in small 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.
• 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.
President Donald Trump announced the deployment of the USNS Comfort to New York and said a second ship, the USNS Mercy, would go to a location on the West Coast, though he did not specify where.
Inslee said Wednesday he had asked to have the ship brought to Puget Sound, because the region’s medical infrastracture will likely be strained sooner than anywhere else in the nation.
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 deploy. USNI News reported seeing the Mercy in a maintenance yard in San Diego.
Inslee expects the ship’s crew would treat “more normal” medical emergencies, and free up hospital beds for use to combat COVID-19. Each ship is manned by military medical personnel, requiring at least a few days to mobilize those personnel from 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.”
Jerry Cornfield: 360-352-8623; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @dospueblos