By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
Equity was a core value in the city’s response to the pandemic and will be a guiding principle in its recovery, according to Seattle Senior Deputy Mayor Mike Fong.
“Ideally, we come out of the pandemic with further recognition of the same kinds of inequities that existed before the pandemic,” said Fong in an interview with Asian Weekly on June 22. “That is how you’re going to see a lot of our strategies, for instance in terms of investment from the federal government, as we focus on a return to the office and the economic recovery.”
During the interview, Fong discussed how the city’s values shaped its response to major challenges during the pandemic, strategies for moving forward, and what might have been done better in hindsight.
Fong attributed the relative success of the city and the region to a number of factors, including the alignment of top officials in their strategic responses and coordination in relying on scientific-based guidelines.
“It was pretty fluid, things were changing on us by the hour, and we were trying to make sure we were consistent and as aligned as possible,” he said. “From Governor Inslee to Executive Constantine to Mayor Durkan, we stayed in lockstep.”
He also said the mayor responded with a pair of interlocking principles. One was to act with urgency, particularly in stepping into areas that the government does not usually enter. The second was the commitment to science.
Asked to compare the region’s performance with other states, Fong said anecdotally he had observed varying responses to the pandemic within a single area.
“Some of this was due to politics, some was due to underlying philosophical differences,” he said.
Seattle and the region’s success, however, was not just government action. There was a necessary partnership with residents, for instance in wearing masks or observing stay-at-home mandates.
“In terms of enforcement, there really are limited tools, you really are relying on trust, overall confidence in communication and approaches and essentially, voluntary compliance,” he said. “And the truth of the matter is, the people of Seattle responded in an incredible way.”
A testimony to the success of the city is that Seattle has hit the 70% vaccination goal among residents over 12.
“All the data indicators show that our state and city really did lead the nation,” he said.
Challenges and equity
Responding to calls for police reform, during the pandemic, was a challenge, Fong said.
There was no easy solution and yet the administration wanted a sustainable approach.
“One of the issues that was very challenging was around the calls to defund the police, the calls for very specific budget reduction thresholds of 50% of the SPD,” he said. “And we just didn’t feel like that was a promise we could actually keep or make given that it is a very complicated set of issues.”
“The conversation now has shifted a little bit, it has given us the opportunity to work on the kinds of reforms that are not just overnight solutions but that with persistence and longer term attention have sustained outcomes,” he said.
Another area where the administration focused on equity, he said, was in vaccination rollout.
“Our vaccine team never wavered that we were going to center on equity, even in terms of the challenges of how to execute it,” he said. “We weren’t going to let the temptation of the various driving forces for getting the vaccine out quickly and relying on traditional mechanisms influence our core approach.
He credited Fire Chief Harold Scoggins with “stepping in to do testing and vaccination, work that isn’t part of their core responsibilities.”
The city government had to make a series of tough choices economically that, in the short term, “impacted a lot of people.”
“And those decisions were made based on following the best guidance the mayor could get,” he said.
These included investment strategies for small businesses, rental assistance, food vouchers, child support, and other supports to make sure a safety net was in place.
Going forward, taking care of the most vulnerable, and “doing everything we can to bring back Seattle’s strong economy,” are efforts the administration is putting in place now, he said.
Asked about what the city could have done better, Fong mentioned a series of urgent challenges at the outset of the pandemic that took a certain amount of time to “get footing on.”
“We had urgency to do testing, we had urgency to get a better handle on the transmission of Covid, there was an emerging set of challenges coming out of assisted living,” he said.
Questions about masking policies emerged from the CDC to the state to the county level.
“In hindsight, we could have gotten into alignment sooner,” he said.
There were also challenges around equitable vaccine distribution, which had to do with constrained supply from the Trump administration, he said.
“But I’m very proud of the work the city did.”
Mahlon can be reached at email@example.com.